Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Review of Ryuutama: Just Four Damn Dice Rolls After Another

I have been running a campaign of Ryuutama for the last couple of months. I want to make clear at the outset that the campaign itself is a very enjoyable one, and that it is ongoing - although I've been terrible at updating the AP reports here on the blog, and life as always foils the ambition of weekly play. I always look forward to the sessions.

With all of that said, though, I'm not very impressed with the system itself.

Ryuutama suffers partly from being over-hyped; it seems that for a while whenever I saw anybody on the internet enquiring about games focusing on overland travel, this would without fail be the recommendation. This is undoubtedly partly the result of what I am increasingly thinking of as Japanflation, the phenomenon that things from Japan are evaluated unjustifiably highly simply because they are Japanese. (This is something that I first really noticed with respect to whisky; it affects RPGs as well, it seems.) But I think it is also likely just a function of the fact that there are so few games out there that seek to do what Ryuutama purportedly does, which is to make the game mostly about the joys of travel and the process of the journey.

The issue is that ultimately Ryuutama in its RAW form feels more like a board game than an RPG, and when you stop playing it in its RAW form, it ceases to be interesting or unique.

What do I mean when I say that it is more like a board game than an RPG? The answer is that the core of the system - the journey rules - are really just a series of dice rolls that the players make to determine how far they can travel, whether they get lost, how healthy they are, and whether they sleep well. It is in this respect just a somewhat more complicated version of Snakes and Ladders; while the PCs can do various things to improve their chances of success, such as buying special equipment and casting spells, once they have done this a journey is in essence simply four dice rolls that have to be performed each day. And the rules are quite explicit about this (although the author does have the sense to feel embarrassed about it):

One of the most important things to remember about Journey Checks is that they should not feel like a series of simple, silent die rolls, to be made over and over again on the journey between points A and B. Every success should prompt an in-character reaction. Every failure should set up an interesting challenge or role-play scene in the game. The GM should embellish the description of what happens, or perhaps leave it to the players to tell the group how they managed to succeed, or what occurred when they failed. While, yes, they are a series of static, rules-based die rolls, Journey Checks should immediately prompt role-playing and potentially create new twists in the story. Don’t let them become a rote chore that silences the players and just produces numeric results. [Emphasis added.]

This is weak sauce indeed: just roll the dice four times, over and over again, and then do a bit of role-playing in between or make up a challenge simply isn't good RPG design. What really surprised me was the discovery that there is no systematic method for generating events or encounters at all - they are all supposed to be either pre-scripted or spontaneously invented (with no advice or method for beginner GMs on how to go about doing this). I ultimately came to the conclusion that the best approach was to use these four 'journey check' rolls to feed into random event tables: if the journey check shows that the PCs get lost, or one of them has poor condition. then this results in a further roll on the relevant random table and you can then find out why they're lost and what happens, etc. But I had to come up with that idea entirely through my own initiative - there is no suggestion of it in the rules themselves. You could quite easily play Ryuutama as just a more or less endless series of dice rolls punctuated by arrivals at towns with pre-scripted scenarios and little role-played vignettes to break up the monotony. And, horrifyingly, I think that is actually how it is envisaged to be played by its creator.

The board-gamey feel also extends to combat, which admittedly is more like Battleships or Othello than Snakes and Ladders, although the true inspiration is clearly the Final Fantasy combat system. PCs and monsters arrange themselves in two ranks facing each other. They can shift back and forth between ranks. And they can attack enemies and defend themselves and do a few 'special moves'. And, er, that's about it. No real fluidity, no creativity, no movement. As soon as anybody tries to do anything interesting or intelligent, the system collapses and the GM just has to make something up. This is forgivable in OD&D, which was the first ever RPG and which had a 'punk' aesthetic and a highly flexible set of rules, and which concedes the power to make on the spot adjudications and house rules to individual DMs as a design choice. It is much less forgivable in a game which purports to be genuinely systematic.

Faced with the repetitiveness and rigidity of the rules, the GM ends up resorting to what he knows best, and stops really playing Ryuutama and running a red-headed bastard child of D&D masquerading as Ryuutama instead. We use the Ryuutama skills and stats and perform the journey checks, but in the end there isn't a great deal of difference between rolling STR+DEX to hit rather than THAC0, or rolling a journey check versus rolling to check if there is a random encounter. If anything, D&D's rules for travelling, such as they are, are more fully formed in that at least they give you a method for determining who the PCs meet while travelling and how they respond to them. Ryuutama doesn't have a single random encounter table or even tell a beginner GM what one is, nor any method for determining chance encounters or events on the road beyond 'just make things up as and when you feel like it, or pre-plot events', which I think in a game about overland travel is pretty unforgivable.

Ultimately, what I was hoping for was that Ryuutama would be a game that made interacting with the landscape itself interesting. It does not even come close to doing this. It might be just about possible to fiddle about with it until it did, but it would probably be simpler to start from scratch. I'm disappointed in it - although in its defence I do like the art and the occidentalist atmosphere that the images evoke.

1 1/2 Becs des corbins

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Yoon-Suin Maps and Layout Bat Signal

So, a second edition of Yoon-Suin is going to happen. It seems serendipitous that lulu can no longer print the book (see recent posts), and my 'red line' of only doing a proper fancy second edition if there was extensive new content has been fulfilled by a recent flourish of creative inspiration. I also have a publisher who is reliable and can organise things effectively. 

I expect there will be a kickstarter reasonably soon. Words and art are arranged, but it will be necessary to have somebody to work on layout, and also somebody to provide usable-at-the-table maps. If you are good at layout, and/or good at drawing gaming maps, preferably with a history of working on completed books, then please get in touch with me at noismsgames AT protonmail.com and provide samples. 

Please do not reply in the comments saying you want to do it or providing links and whatnot (or suggestions either, for that matter). Email me instead! 

You are of course welcome to post other things - praise, abuse, advice, vicious and hateful diatribes, or otherwise - in the comments as desired. 

Monday, 1 June 2020

Yoon-Suin Print Version No Longer Available on Lulu

I am putting this post here in the hope that people looking for the print version of Yoon-Suin will find this entry after searching. Sadly, Yoon-Suin is no longer available from lulu, apparently because they cannot now print landscape books which are longer than 250 pages.

This is annoying, to put it mildly, but it does provide the opportunity to finally put out a revised edition of the book, perhaps with extra material, at some point this year. (And not with lulu, who I won't be using again.) Watch this space for details.

The book is still available on PDF from Payhipdrivethrurpg.com and the Noisms Games website.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Are You Experienced

Comments on recent posts led me to revisit the 2nd edition AD&D DMG (God help me) and its Chapter 8 - on "Experience".

These rules are easily, and fairly, criticised on a number of grounds. Foremost among these criticisms is the rules' arbitrariness, encompassed in the notion that "the number of points given a player for a game session is a signal of how well the DM thinks the player did in the game". In other words, they're a method for rewarding whatever the individual DM's conception of "good role playing" entails. Favouritism, inconsistency, mistakes, unfairness, resentment - what could possibly go wrong? The worst element of all this is the idea that experience points should be awarded for meta concerns such as whether a player got involved properly, encouraged others, interfered too much, or acted like a "rules lawyer". Why it is the DM's business to passive-aggressively police the behaviour of the players through XP awards rather than just taking them to one side and saying, "Stop being an arsehole" is beyond me. Almost as bad is the idea of getting XP for achieving "story goals" - a rule that positively incentivises the absolute worst thing about bad gaming: railroading.

The beauty of XP for treasure is not just that it is simple but that it also tells you what "good role playing" is - getting treasure and surviving. It is what Ron Edwards might have called "coherent". This might not be to all tastes, but those other tastes are served by other games.

The 2nd edition way of awarding experience points was always unworkable in practice except in limited circumstances (like an adult DM with a group of youngish children), and it is mostly a historical curiosity now - or at least it should be. But it's possible that there is one bit worth rescuing. This is the class awards. Briefly summarised, these are:

  • Fighters get XP for "defeating" enemies
  • Priests get XP for successfully using their powers, casting spells to further their ethos, and making stuff
  • Wizards get XP for casting spells to overcome "foes or problems", researching things and making stuff
  • Rogues get XP for using their special abilities and, er, treasure

This is at least worth playing around with as the sole method of awarding XP where the desire is to get away from the "PCs as rogues" motif that is at the heart of what the OSR is all about. It is coherent in a different way, in that it at least attempts to link XP with what the various classes are supposed to be for. 

The immediate consequence that suggests itself is that this would incentivise slavish and unthinking pursuit of what you might call class priorities: the fighter wants to kill everything; the magic-user is constantly trying to come up with magical solutions to solve problems; the thief is just after treasure. This could have its charms. One could imagine all sorts of amusing and interesting consequences flowing from having an adventuring party whose priorities are fundamentally orthogonal and occasionally even directly at odds with each other. Although one could also imagine priorities being so different that it becomes difficult to reconcile them.

Another is the mid-game. In my experience as the players begin to amass cash they tend to use it to make investments (in 99% of cases this is building a pub; in 1% it is fortifications). If most PCs don't have a massive interesting in getting treasure in order to advance, are they going to be as wealthy as they go up in levels? What does a fighter do whose only real goal is to fight? Or a wizard whose only real goal is to use magic and research it? The answer: much more adventuring, but for other aims than financial. 

How this would work in practice remains to be seen: as usual, have at it in the comments.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Back of a Beermat Rules for Tolkienesque BECMI or BX Magic

If I were to run a game in Middle-Earth - Blue Wizards or otherwise - I would probably use Basic Holmes/Moldvay/Mentzer D&D, and most likely the Rules Cyclopedia. This is largely because I am old and lazy and set in my ways. I have MERP and played it a lot as a youngster, but it is complicated and would involve re-learning. I have The One Ring RPG and I am sure it is great, but I would have to learn it from scratch. I am convinced that the best system for Middle-Earth gaming would actually be a variant of Pendragon. But this would involve work to adapt the Pendragon rules. Realistically, then, the system with which I am most familiar is the one to go with, and that's Basic D&D.

The immediate problem with this is magic. As people who write about RPGs set in Middle-Earth never tire of emphasising, Tolkien's magic is nothing like D&D magic. It is rare and mysterious, where D&D magic is relatively common and systematic. It also has an air of danger about it for the caster - there is a strong sense that magic is intrinsically corrupting, and certainly not to be dabbled with.

But one wouldn't want to overcomplicate the blissful simplicity of Basic D&D with new systems. And at the same time one would, I think, want PCs to have access to magic of various kinds. I would simply introduce some restrictions:

  • PCs cannot be magic-users - although they can be clerics, druids or elves and use magic accordingly
  • There are magic-users, but becoming one involves becoming corrupted, and the PCs ought to be the Goodies in a Middle-Earth game
  • Whenever clerics, druids or elves use magic, there is a chance that this is noticed by servants of  Morgoth, increasing with the level of the spell cast  - and there would be a table for determining which such servants came to investigate (there was something along these lines in MERP)
  • There are magic items, but their use is always associated with some risk of becoming enthralled to Sauron, one of the Blue Wizards, the former owner, some malevolent entity, etc. (perhaps a 1% daily risk of becoming 'turned' and taken over by the DM as an NPC)

The last of these is hardest to systematise, but perhaps it is better that way - it would give the DM room to get creative.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

More Thoughts on Blue Wizards

I have no idea what Tolkien had in mind for the geography of Rhun and the peoples within it. But it seems to me that, while one shouldn't think of Middle Earth as being too closely paralleled with the real world, there is a case to be made that its character is roughly akin to the Eurasian steppe this side of the Urals - more specifically the Pontic Steppe north of the Black Sea (with the Sea of Rhun here being a bit like the Black Sea).

There are a few reasons why I think there are good reasons for drawing some parallels between Middle Earth and the real world, here, again with the proviso in mind that we're not just making one an allegory for the other:

  1. We are told in The Silmarillion that beyond the Sea of Rhun is the Sea of Helcar, another big inland sea. Helcar would seem to be rather like the Caspian to Rhun's Black Sea. We're also told that beyond that there is a range of mountains called the Red Mountains, which seem to me like they ought to be the Caucasus/Urals. 
  2. Rhun is inhabited by Easterlings, who are apparently nomadic or at least semi-nomadic. This implies both a steppe landscape and also cultures something like the Cossacks, Alans, Huns, Magyars, Bulgars, Scythians and other tribes who circulated on the Pontic Steppe at various stages of its history.
  3. The Numenoreans apparently also had colonies around the Sea of Rhun, which suggests to me something along the lines of the Greek colonies on the Crimea, which culminated in the 'Greco-Scythian' Bosporan Kingdom. You can imagine Numenoreans still living in these colonies in the Third Age, perhaps with 'Numenoreanised' Easterling populations as well.
  4. Humans purportedly came from this area originally and this seems to chime, in my mind, with the Pontic Steppe being the original home of proto-Indo-European speakers in the real world.
  5. Well, it looks flat, doesn't it?

A setting suggests itself in which there is a huge steppe populated by many wandering nomadic (or semi-nomadic, based in sichs) tribes with highly distinctive cultures and languages - perhaps hunting vast herds of the Kine of Araw. But there are also towns proper, home to fallen or debased Numenoreans and their 'Numenoreanised' populations. And there are perhaps, too, the ruins, tombs and monuments of a much more extensive Numenorean realm, now mostly forgotten.

But there are other ingredients too. The agents of Saruman and Sauron are abroad (such a Tolkienesque word), searching for clues about the Blue Wizards and spreading mischief. There are dwarfs living in the hills around the Sea itself - indeed, it is implied that a majority of the dwarves of Middle Earth are actually living in Rhun. Elves too - mysterious and forbidding Avari deep in those forests on the north-east shore of the Sea. And the odd dragon, natch. 

What of the Blue Wizards themselves? If we can think of Rhun as the Pontic Steppe, we can think of the Wizards as being beyond it - in Khwarazmia, maybe, or Transoxania - but perhaps that would be to give the game away. In any event, we can be sure that they left "secret cults and 'magic' traditions" behind them as they passed through the steppes of Rhun.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Dreaming is Free: Towards an 'In Search of the Blue Wizards' Campaign

Is it possible to look at the map above and not feel a wave of nostalgia washing over you like a tsunami?

Anyway. The Blue Wizards. Tolkien had different conceptions of them through his career. The version I prefer is from his letter of 14th October 1958 to Rhona Beare:

I really do not know anything clearly about the other two [wizards] – since they do not concern the history of the N[orth].W[est]. I think they went as emissaries to distant regions, East and South, far out of Númenórean range: missionaries to 'enemy-occupied' lands, as it were. What success they had I do not know; but I fear that they failed, as Saruman did, though doubtless in different ways; and I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults and 'magic' traditions that outlasted the fall of Sauron.

There is so much in that small paragraph: distant regions, vagueness about success or failure, how the wizards might have failed in 'different ways' to Saruman, what secret cults or magical traditions they founded and more besides. Plenty for a DM to get his teeth into, anyway.

I imagine the campaign covering the area beyond Mirkwood, encompassing the Iron Hills, the Sea of Rhun, and Rhun itself - and beyond. Ostensibly, the PCs would be going in search of the Blue Wizards, perhaps under the command or instigation of Gandalf or Elrond, but there would of course be much more to the campaign than this. There would be Easterling tribes of myriad types, some nomadic, some living in walled towns. There would be degenerate Numenoreans, perhaps something like the black Numenoreans of the South - the remnants of colonies from the Second Age - or undead ones (or only the ruins of the civilization they built). There would be agents of both Saruman and Sauron going hither and thither across the land, trying to thwart the PCs and find the Blue Wizards for themselves. There would be roving orcs and other of Morgoth's creations. But there would be elves and dwarves too, perhaps of unusual Avari types in respect of the elves, and perhaps of a more primal or wild nature in the case of the dwarves. And, naturally, there would be these "secret cults and 'magic' traditions" that Tolkien so tantalises us with.

The campaign would be a sandbox, but one which I think of as a purposive hexcrawl. There would be clues scattered across the map as to the Blue Wizards' whereabouts. But many of these would have to be red herrings or diversions, and of course the PCs might well be distracted by other things too, not the least of which being rival groups of Saruman and Sauron's servants. Crucial in all of this would be to start the PCs off already having several avenues to explore, and taking things from there - giving them options, and then seeing what pre-arranged clues are subsequently uncovered.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

The Adventurer-Dense to Adventurer-Sparse Spectrum: Vance to Tolkien

In Jack Vance's fiction, adventurers tend to be commonplace. (Indeed, in some respects almost everybody in Vance's novels are adventurers, because you rarely meet anybody who isn't vigorously pursuing some personal private quest, vendetta, mission or task of some kind.) Think of the various magicians and their rivalries in the "Dying Earth" stories; or the entire global economy of Tschai and its reliance on adventurers bringing treasure ("sequins") out from a dangerous wilderness; the idea that people write histories and popular non-fiction books about all the many adventurers infesting Beyond in the "Demon Princes"; or Interchange in The Killing Machine, which is predicated on kidnappings being so routine that the practice has developed formal institutions of arbitrage.

Vance's fiction, in other words, is adventurer-dense. Other adventurer-dense fictional universes which spring to mind are the Star Wars galaxy far, far away, Titan of the Fighting Fantasy books, and most D&D settings.

In adventurer-dense settings, you get an adventurer-friendly infrastructure developing. Institutions arise to facilitate what adventurers do, from your bustling inn brimming with hirelings and rumour, to your adventurer's guild, your market in ancient treasures and exotic weapons, your sages willing to shell out fortunes for rare collectibles, and so on. (Arguably, the true potential of adventurer-dense settings has never come close to being fully explored; would a system of adventurer insurance come into being? How about hireling labour exchanges? Or guilds for different adventurer types - woe betide a dungeoneer who is found to have been adventuring in a cave system or forest?)

For Tolkien, adventurers are rare. At any one time there appear to be roughly a dozen of them in the entire world, and they seem to be specifically chosen. They don't run into each other, and there is no adventuring infrastructure - Rivendell and Beorn are about it, at a stretch. His fiction is adventurer-sparse.

Gene Wolf tends to create adventurer-sparse settings, as do many of the more popular "big" fantasy authors, like Robert Jordan, David Eddings or Robin Hobb.

Is your world adventure-dense, or adventure-sparse, and what are the implications?

Thursday, 14 May 2020

On the RPG Hobby's Structural Bias and Being D&D-Critical

Patrick Stuart, one of the players in my online Ryuutama campaign, put up this interesting post yesterday. In brief, Ryuutama is not really very good at producing the type of play that it presents itself as - a kind of Ghibli-meets-the-Oregon-Trail - and we've ended up really just doing old school D&D with a slightly different system.

Although I'm having fun running the campaign, this analysis is completely correct. What has happened so far has not really been very different to what would have happened if we were playing BECMI.

It's hard to know whether this is Ryuutama's fault or mine. I think partly it is down to weaknesses in the system, but also due to my own pre-existing biases; I didn't intend for the party to end up exploring a dungeon, but rolling on random tables led that way - and since I was the one who created the random tables, it's hard for me to lay the blame at anyone else's feet.

Nevertheless, all of this raises a set of more profound questions about the nature of 'feel' in RPGs. How do you successfully make a session or campaign have a certain atmosphere or mood, or emulate a particular genre or work of fiction?

My instinct is that there is what sociologists would probably call a 'structural bias' in the hobby, in that D&D has by far away the lion's share of the market and is the game through which most people first experience role playing. So regardless of its actual substantive qualities as a game, it dominates everybody's understanding of what an RPG is all about. All other things being equal, actual play leans towards being like D&D. There is a very faint inertia involved in anything that isn't dungeoneering.

The key phrase there, of course, is "all other things being equal". I don't mean for a second that it's impossible to play Pendragon or Call of Cthulhu or Traveller and not have it descend into dungeon exploration. That would be absurd. Clearly, there are other factors at work, including the substantive rules of whatever game is being played; the way they are presented; the art; the writing; the people involved in playing any given session of the game, and so on. Being "not D&D" is perfectly easily achievable when those factors align.

I increasingly, though, think the most important factor of all may be the people involved - their attitudes and what they want to achieve. Put another way, I am sure that if in my Ryuutama game we, the DM and players, had consistently encouraged each other to adopt a more Ghibli-like approach, we would have ended up with a more Ghibli-like campaign. We could, in short, have been more explicitly D&D-critical. When I was drawing up my random event tables, I could have reminded myself, "No, don't put anything remotely dungeonish in there - it wouldn't fit with the mood." I could have made the effort a tiny bit more strenuously to avoid leaning back on old crutches. A lot of 'feel', I mean, is really just down to effort and expectation.

One of the RPG campaign concepts I would dearly love to run would be an "in search of the Blue Wizards" game set in Middle Earth, with the PCs taking on the task of heading Eastwards, say from Rivendell, on a quest to find the two lost wizards and seek their aid in the war against Sauron. I have always been reticent to do so, because: a) it would involve a lot of work; b) it would be really hard not to have it end up as a railroad; but also, chiefly, c) I'm worried it would end up devolving into old school D&D. Maybe the problem here is just me - I don't trust myself to be sufficiently D&D-critical to make it work.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

"The World Cup of Duels" - Ryuutama AAR, Parts IV and V

[The recap for the last session can be found here. This is an omnibus edition for two sessions.]

The Characters

  • Jojotekina Gyoza ("Jojo"), a technical-type minstrel armed with a flute 
  • Kestrel, an attack-type hunter who bears a mysterious scroll that he believes he must deliver to somebody, whose identity he does not know 
  • Ogesana Fall, a magic-type noble, and his trusty but ignoble donkey, Bartholemew 
  • Virid, the GMPC (Ryuutama has these, but they don't do too much and don't really appear initially), a mysterious green-bearded old man
  • Sir Portos of Underhill, Maria the Hedgewitch and Kyrie the Nondescript Henchman, three NPC adventurers, referred to collectively as "the Other Party" 

What Happened

The end of Part III saw our heroes underground on the shores of a vast and dark subterranean lake, with their buffoonish leader and champion Ogesana Fall unconscious and dying. They had vanquished a group of undead dwarfs and a water weird, but they had suffered heavily in the attempt. They retreated back to the Other Party's base camp to tend to Ogesana, regroup and lick their wounds.

The most immediate problem were rations. Put bluntly, the PCs had neglected to bring many of these at all, and had somewhat foolishly bartered the few they did have away in return for hallucinogenic mushrooms. The Other Party had some, but not enough for everybody to have something to eat for the three days it would take before Ogesana was fully conscious (let alone fully healed). So Kestrel spent the next two days fishing for blind cave fish in the underground lake, while Jojo tried his hand at getting some help from the goblin-ish things living close to the mouth of the caves, who had given their blessing to the PCs' expedition at the beginning of all of this. This returned a roasted giant cave cricket, enough to provide several days' worth of food for everybody, given in return for aforementioned hallucinogenic mushrooms (which the Great Shaman strongly desired) and out of affection for 'wise' Ogesana Fall, the human-man who had given such sage advice previously about the importance of water.

Days passed. Eventually Ogesana was nursed back to consciousness, and then restored with magical healing herbs. It was time, finally, to get back to exploring the lake. 

Step one was to cross the water and investigate what was on the immediate far side, where there was apparently a cavern wall. There was much conversation about how to do this and whether it was wise to swim. Both Ogesana Fall and Sir Portos insisted on doing this. Eventually wiser heads prevailed when it was remembered that there were plenty of wooden doors higher up in the dungeon. These could be bound together to form a raft. Kyrie, a technician, was able to do this successfully, creating a raft that could bear three passengers. 

There then followed a complicated argument. While the PCs and the Other Party were currently cooperating, their alliance only went so far. If only three people could traverse the lake at a time, and all of the passengers were from one party or the other, it could give that group an unfair advantage. In short, if there was any glory (or loot) to be had on the other side, they would get to it first. There was ostensibly an agreement in place about the disposal of any treasure after the expedition was over, but this would not of course apply to secret treasure. It was clear, then, that whichever three people went, there would have to be a mixture from both parties.

It was also clear that both Ogesana and Sir Portos would have to go, or neither. Their honour would not permit them to tolerate the other possibly getting the opportunity to be more courageous. 
But unbeknownst to Ogesana, Jojo and Kestrel had been plotting to either kill or incapacitate Sir Portos for some time. This was not motivated by any particular animus (well, not entirely anyway) but because any and all treasure gained from the expedition - including the polliwoggle - would go to the winner of a duel to first blood between Ogesana and the Sir Portos once it was over. Since it was evident to everybody that Sir Portos would win such a contest easily, Jojo and Kestrel were naturally keen to find a way to avoid it ever taking place. Killing or injuring Sir Portos seemed the best way to do this. So they contrived that it should be they to go across on the raft, together with Kyrie from the Other Party. 

On the way across, Kestrel and Jojo rather unsubtly probed Kyrie's loyalties to his master. It became obvious that Kyrie thought Sir Portos a ludicrous popinjay, but was bound by an oath, sworn to Sir Portos's family in perpetuity, because Kyrie's father had been saved from death by Sir Portos's. However, it was also established that there was nothing in the oath that would necessarily require Kyrie to intervene to prevent some plot being hatched by third parties against the knight. 

Eventually the three of them arrived on the other side and found a small area of 'shore' with a man-made opening. They went into the opening and found a small chamber with a desiccated dwarf skeleton, still wearing armour, and carrying a ruby ring. On the far side was a staircase. Kestrel and Jojo knew that Ogesana would not be happy if any adventuring was done without him. But they were unwilling to both go back across the lake in the raft and leave Kyrie alone on the other side to explore. Eventually, through a complicated fox/chicken/grain arrangement, this was resolved and everybody was ferried to and fro until all were across the lake and gathered on the shore. 

They crept up the stairs. At the top was a high, round chamber, with a podium or dias on top of which stood an 8 foot tall statue of a humanoid moray eel, like the statuette discovered earlier in the expedition, and the large shattered statue on the other side of the lake. It was carrying in one hand a sickle, with the other hand being empty but with space for something to be slotted inside. Its eyes were garnets.

Before anybody could do anything much, Kestrel took out the golden dagger handle which had been found near the shattered statue on the other side of the lake, and slotted it into this statue's hand. It instantly came alive and began bellowing and shrieking in a foul, alien tongue. Kestrel, because of the lingering after-effects of his mushroom trip, was able to understand the statue as demanding to know there whereabouts of 'the Twin'. It then marched off its podium and headed for the doorway, cutting down Kyrie with its sickle. 

A general melee developed. Sir Portos dealt the statue several lusty blows with his guisarme, but the blade could not damage it. The PCs attempted various distractions, including snatching up a broken chest from somewhere in a corner and trying to use it to cover the statue's head, thus blinding it. Eventually it became clear, though, that the thing was not trying to kill anybody, in particular but was simply heading for the staircase and attacking anything in its way. They decided to let it go, and follow behind - although Sir Portos had to be persuaded by Ogesana not to continue the fight. 

Ogesana and Maria remained to make romantic declarations to each other and tend Kyrie. Jojo, Kestrel and Sir Portos chased the statue downstairs and found it marching to the other side of the lake, apparently intending to march on the bottom of the lake and eventually submerge itself and come out on the opposite shore. They followed it in the raft and watched it approach the shattered statue. It was by now clear what it meant by 'the Twin'. They fanned out behind it and watched, fully prepared to do battle. Having stabilised Kyrie, Ogesana left him in Maria's care and charged down to join the others, using the aforementioned chest as a makeshift boat. A furious fight developed as the statue came after them, apparently in the belief they had something to do with the Twin's destruction. Kestrel was severely wounded. But eventually, through Ogesana's ingenuity - hiding behind the statue's legs while Sir Portos poked at it with his guisarme so that eventually it toppled over and was half-smashed by its own weight - they were victorious and managed to disarm the statue.

They decided that, rather than kill it, they would attempt to communicate with it. This they did with pictograms scratched in the sand with a sword, and gesture, aided by Kestrel's ability to understand what the statue said (although he lacked the ability to speak in return). They learned that somebody must have snatched the dagger from the statue's hand long ago and used it to destroy 'the Twin'; they surmised this was Cuthbert, the author of the account written on slate they had discovered in a chamber closer to the surface of the caves. They also learned that Cuthbert's dwarves had all gone mad and drowned themselves in the lake, apparently through worship of the moray god. Finally, they discovered that the underground lake stretched far off into infinity, eventually merging with the endless ocean which was the source of all water in the universe, and that one must not stray too far into it, because eventually one would find oneself borne away on currents that would take one away into that never-ending vastness. 

The task was clear. Find and recover the tadpole, but do not get swept into the infinite plane of water. 

But the raft only had space for three. Who would go, and who would stay? Clearly Ogesana and Sir Portos would insist. For some time, it seriously seemed as though a system of duels would have to be fought to decide who else would do it - a knock-out 'world cup' affair. Eventually this seemed to have been abandoned - although no final decision was reached. 


And that was the end of the fifth session. I really enjoyed both this session and the previous one - lots of dastardly plotting took place, as well as some good creative thinking. The conversation with the statue was also full of funny misunderstandings and complications which I can't do justice in a blog post. But I realised at the end of it that I had abandoned Ryuutama's combat system for the most part and was really running it rather like D&D. The system itself is a plan that hasn't quite sustained contact with the enemy. 

Saturday, 9 May 2020

The Sweet Spot

I have been continuing the Ryuutama campaign and will post some 'omnibus' AP reports on the blog shortly. But running these sessions have got me thinking about the timing of sessions.

I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts on the ideal time length of an RPG session. The immediate reaction people tend to have, and which I myself would once have had, with these things is to just go, 'How long is a piece of string?' But now I'm not so sure. Because of my own time constraints, the session I've been running tend to be about 90 minutes long, and almost invariably that feels - to me at least - like we are just hitting our stride.

This is in some respects good, because there is almost nothing in life to which the motto, 'Always leave them wanting more' is not applicable and solid advice. But 90 minutes I think errs too far on the wrong side of that principle - it isn't quite satisfying enough. What I think it indicates is that 90 minutes would be a good point to have a break, before another 90 minute second half, as it were.

An additional argument for this is that I have come to believe, for pseudoscientific reasons, that 90 minutes is a kind of sweet spot for human beings in general - a natural breaking point in the attention cycle, something to do with the ways our brain activity fluctuates throughout the day and night. Most people have sleep cycles of around 90 minutes, for instance, and it may be why feature films are about that long. Teaching classes at university has also taught me that an hour is usually too short, but two hours are too long - 90 minutes has a way of working out at being 'just right'. This would suggest to me that 90 minutes has a natural rhythmic feel to it at a phenomenological level, but also that 3 hours with a short break in the middle may be the perfect amount of gaming, since 90 minutes isn't quite enough to really make major progress.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Dungeoneering as Tactical Combat

When I have a spare moment, I have been enjoying watching this guy's actual plays of the old game, Terror from the Deep.

It got me wondering whether anybody had experimented with running D&D as a kind of tactical wargame, meaning in other words a one-on-one campaign between a DM and a single player controlling an entire party of PCs exploring dungeons and hexmaps and so on.

I often have players create two PCs in a D&D campaign, so that there are 'spares' on hand when PCs (inevitably) die. But I have never gone beyond that. It strikes me that it might be fun.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Killers' Path

Imperial rule in the north found it expedient to deploy assassins to help achieve its ends. These were trained almost from birth, and divided into groups by specialism - strangling, poisoning, stabbing, and so on. What begins in utility ends in ritual: over the centuries these groups evolved into formal religious cults, devoted not only to the Emperor but also to murder itself as a holy act, and believing purposeless killing to be the ultimate celebration of the triumph of the uncaring cosmos over man’s petty goals and desires. Their religiosity enabled them to survive whatever precipitated the collapse of the Empire, and thereafter they roamed the region where the Dark River meets the Great North Road, further refining their arts and the application of them, and preying at random on the populace.

It took the Lady to unify them and to found what became the town of Killers’ Path. Nobody knows to which cult she belonged, and it has become important subsequently for her origins to remain mysterious; but what is known is that she was a prominent, skilled assassin, well-versed in her technique and devoted like no other to the cause of empty and premature death. Yet she herself became the target of rivals, and was murdered by them - only to come back from the dead a month later with a revolutionary message. This was that it is possible to cheat the cosmos and defeat death through will alone, and in doing so to return fully alive rather than in the empty parody of life that is undeath. She brought the different cults together with this tale of hope, and created with them a settlement which grew gradually into a burgh.

Killers’ Path is now, at a superficial glance, an ordinary market town, filled with ordinary freemen and their families and servants. But the cults remain. By no means every freeman of the town is a member, but a significant proportion are, and they play out a half-secret ‘Game’ alongside the comings and goings of mainstream society - one in which ritualised murder is permitted and encouraged. The rules of the Game are straightforward. At the beginning of a Round, one member from each cult is selected at random to be the ‘Hare’ - that is, the target for assassination - for another cult, again chosen at random. Over the course of the Round, usually lasting a year and a day, the cults each attempt to kill their respective Hares however they see fit, the only other rule being that they must kill no other citizen of the town, including members of other cults.

This is an exercise in brinksmanship. The later the assassination takes place in the Round, the better; the last cult to kill its Hare is the winner. But failure to kill the Hare at all by the last day of the Round means shameful defeat. The aim of each cult, then, is to kill its Hare as late as it can bear the risk of leaving it. This means that for most of the time the cults are simply plotting and scheming; it is only in the weeks leading up to the end of a given Round that the ‘action’ truly takes place. Naturally enough, however, each cult also spends most of each Round plotting to protect its Hare from assassination so as to frustrate whatever cult is targeting it this time. The result is that, each Round, all of the cults are engaged in a complicated dance of espionage and counter-espionage as they plot their final attacks and attempt to uncover - and hinder - each others’ schemes. All of this takes place under the noses of the inhabitants of the town, of course, who feign ignorance even as they await patiently the ‘sport’ to begin when the Round draws to its conclusion.

The Lady still rules Killers’ Path, though she is rarely seen. When she is, she appears as she has for as long as the living can remember - half way between middle-aged and old, handsome and cold, supremely calm, her jet black hair touched here and there with grey. She has no apparent servants, nor entourage, and lives alone in a tower in the centre of a small courtyard hidden behind some townhouses off a quiet street. Yet almost all obey her without question. She is as close as one can come to being a living God, and the members of the cults naturally take her word as law, her commands as instructions. This is reinforced by what is common knowledge in Killers’ Path: any who go against a decree from the Lady or act against her interests do not remain alive in the town for long.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

On Carrie Bradshaw and Frodo Baggins: The "She's the Protagonist So We Like Her" Phenomenon

I have watched a lot of Sex and the City over the years - probably every episode of the TV series and the two films - after having been forced to by various girlfriends and wife. I actually really enjoyed the series (although the films are atrocious, especially the second one, which is truly execrable - one of the worst, laziest, stupidest films ever made). It is for the most part smartly written, if highly formulaic, and I find the depiction of men in it genuinely fascinating; if you think female characters who appear in fiction and films designed to appeal to men are awful, unrealistic, two-dimensional stereotypes, then Sex and the City will quickly disabuse you of the notion that it's any different the other way round.

But the most intriguing element of Sex and the City to the neutral observer is the character of Carrie Bradshaw. Carrie Bradshaw is a horrendous person. She is materialistic, self-absorbed to the point of being almost monstrous, amoral and nihilistic - like the personification of everything wrong with 21st century consumer culture. It is completely absurd to imagine that men would be queueing up to date her - especially not supposedly nice guys like her erstwhile fiance (whose name I forget - I think it might be "ThatguywhowasinMyBigFatGreekWeddingandlooksabitlikeWaingrofromHeat"). The whole premise of Sex and the City, in other words - that Carrie Bradshaw is an attractive woman with a great personality who men would think of as being a catch - is completely and utterly false. And yet the series and films rely almost exclusively on that premise. Carrie Bradshaw is the protagonist, so we are supposed to accept that everybody within the fictional Sex and the City universe loves her  despite all the evidence before our eyes, which tells us in no uncertain terms that she is dreadful.

There are lots of examples of this phenomenon in film and literature - protagonists who are in fact intensely dislikable but who all the other characters mystifyingly seem to love. The main character in the Twilight films (I haven't read the books) is another great example: a moody, grumpy, sulking pain in the arse whose protagonist status means that, unaccountably, vampires and werewolves just fling themselves at her feet. There are plenty of others. Harry Potter is certainly on the border of this territory - what an annoying twerp that kid is; why do Hermione and Ron like him, exactly? (I may just be channelling my hatred of Daniel Radcliffe's petrified forest of wooden performances in the films, though, here.) Orloondo Bland's character in the Pirates films is slap bang in the middle of it. Although so, for that matter, is Kiera Knightley's. The Pirates films are an interesting example, in fact, in that it's not only mystifying why anybody else in the films' fictional universe likes the two main protagonists, but also baffling that they even like each other.

But this isn't just a problem for trashy YA novels and Hollywood flicks. Even the Great can fall prey to it. I am speaking, of course, about Tolkien and Frodo Baggins.

Why does anybody like Frodo? Well, we know the reason - it's because he's the protagonist. But he's fundamentally a pretty dislikable figure. In his defence, he has a lot to deal with. But he doesn't deal with it with particularly good grace. In Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith astutely observes that our natural sympathies are aroused when we know somebody is suffering, but that it is quite easy for the sufferer to extinguish that flow of goodwill by being excessively morose. There is something odd about somebody who takes suffering with too much sanguinity, but we do admire a certain amount of fortitude and forbearance. If a sufferer too readily complains, we quickly start to find them irritating - even if we know that their suffering is real. What we like, in short, is an attitude that is appropriately serious but phlegmatic.

Frodo tips over into the territory of exhausting goodwill. He is excessively morose. He is an ingrate. He mopes. He shows no initiative. He is continually at pains to let everybody know that he is finding everything jolly hard work. He is a bit like a toddler who has been running around all day and now that it's time to go home suddenly realises he's tired and spends the entire journey grousing and complaining and asking to be carried. In short, he's a great big soaking wet blanket. But the other characters don't just merely put up with him. They love him. They are unflinchingly and unhesitatingly loyal.

Creating a sympathetic main character is hard work. If he or she is too perfect, or deals with everything too easily, the audience smells a rat. But it is so very easy to stray too far in the other direction and come up with somebody who is a pain the neck - who feels everything too keenly. As Smith well knew, human beings will tolerate somebody feeling sorry for themselves if it appears to be deserved, but that toleration can very rapidly turn into annoyance.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Lockdown and Putting Things in Perspective

The UK has been under 'lockdown' since March 23rd. Thankfully, because the weather has been unrelentingly and unseasonably nice, and I have a garden and decent parks and beaches within a 20 minute drive, it hasn't been as terrible as it could have been. We've just spent most of each day in the open air letting my just-turned three year old daughter scamper about to the point of exhaustion. (And unlike almost every journalist, police officer, politician or commentator in the land, I've actually read the relevant Regulations and know what they say, and understand what limits exist on police powers.) And we are comparably lucky here - our government has at least blanched at the miseries being heaped upon those poor souls over the water in France, Spain and Italy.

With all that said, I hate everything about this situation. Regardless of how necessary all of this actually is (and I am prepared to accept there are differing views within 'the science' and we may indeed never know), I am not well constituted for this sort of life. I am used to being 'out there' and I can't abide sitting in the house doing nothing, just watching TV or glued to a computer screen. A day spent out and about doing things is one well spent; a day cooped up indoors is one wasted. And, for whatever reason - I blame the parents - I am psychologically incapable of obeying orders or abiding by rules. I do not get depressed ordinarily, but this feels like this is driving me there.

However, I have been able to take a step back and reassess things. I have read a lot of - let's call a spade a spade - crap in the media about how the Covid-19 thing is a wonderful opportunity for us to live life differently. The only real result of all of this is that life will be either a bit shit, or really, really shit, afterwards for quite some time. Yet I, like I expect you, have been reflecting over the last few weeks on how my personal priorities might need to change. We are heading for straitened economic times in general, and I am no longer entirely sure that my safe career is going to be all that safe. I don't expect to be out of work, but I do expect that the nature of the job will have to change quite radically, and in a way which I will not really like. I am, unusually, confronted with the possibility that I could re-orient myself.

Nassim Taleb (half genius, half buffoon, 100% arsehole) has useful career advice: you should pick a job that will guarantee you a decent income and which won't be particularly taxing, so that you can devote your free time to esoteric pursuits. This way you are not exposed to risk (you have a safe steady job to fall back on) and your weird hobby might, just might, some day come off. This is what Einstein did: patent clerk by day, theoretical physicist at nights and weekends. Being a patent clerk paid the bills. Eventually the hobbyist interest in physics paid off big time.

Most writers also follow this pattern, deliberately or otherwise. Stephen King will be the most well known to readers of this blog - a school teacher who wrote on the evenings and weekends and one day popped out Carrie. Michael Punke would go to his office at a law firm at 5am so he could spend 3 hours writing what became The Revenant before starting work for the day at 8. Scott Adams did something similar when he was originally doing the Dilbert comics. I am a big James Ellroy fan; when he was writing his first few novels he made his living as a golf caddy. He would be on the golf course for most of the day just thinking out his plots, and then he would go home in the afternoon and write all evening.

I have devoted a lot of time and energy to my job, like I suppose most professional people do, over the last decade. I have got a lot of fulfilment out of doing so, but I now start to wonder whether I would get more out of putting a bit more into creating RPG-related things. In other words, maybe it's time to stop treating my career like an end in itself, and instead do the Einstein thing: think of my job as simply being the means necessary to provide me with what I need to pay the bills while I do more unconventional things. Maybe.

All I know is that while I have been sitting here ostensibly 'working from home' every day, I have spent almost of the time I have supposed to have been working writing 'Northumberland Yoon-Suin' stuff instead. Mum's the word: don't tell my boss.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Thinking Really Hard About Trees As Tall As Mountains

I have written semi-regularly about the concept of a megadungeon inside an impossibly large tree. (See herehereherehere and here.) Recently I tried to do some calculations to figure out, essentially, how tall such a tree would have to be in order to have, say, 10-12 'dungeon levels' of 30-50 chambers or more each tunnelled into its trunk.

The answer is: really tall.

Googling around on the internet it seems that 80:1 is a rough rule of thumb for the height-diameter ratio of a stable tree. This will obviously vary between species (and many environmental factors). This means that if a tree is a mile high (meaning a mile from the base all the way to the top of the crown), the diameter will only be about 22 yards and the circumference just under 70.

That's really not very thick if you want to imagine that human-sized tunnel networks are burrowed into it. You're talking essentially about having to fit each dungeon level roughly into a 22 x 22 yard space (yes, I know the area of a circle isn't the same as the area of a square - I'm just using rough figures).

For a mile high tree, then, it isn't realistic to think of the dungeon levels as being sprawling networks of chambers and corridors as a subterranean dungeon would have. Each level would have to be smallish, or maybe with lots of small rooms, or very dense (meaning the rooms are compressed together with only short distances between them), or all three. Or scale would have to be achieved by each dungeon level mostly being spread vertically rather than horizontally - which is hard to map.

For a ten-mile high tree, of course, it's a different matter. There, you are definitely in 'traditional megadungeon' territory in terms of mapping. A tree trunk 220 yards in diameter and just shy of 700 yards in circumference can fit a heck of a lot of dungeon into it. But then one runs into a different problem - figuring out how to map it.

Previously, I argued for using Excel for tree-trunk mapping (see here). The basic idea here is that you imagine the surface of the tree trunk as a 'wrap around', like sections of a cylinder laid out in 2D. You can then plot out where the climbers are on its surface at any moment like in Battleships:

Imagine the above map shows a cross-section of tree trunk measuring 500 x 700 yards, assuming a 10-mile high tree (whose circumference, remember, will be just under 700 yards). Each square here represents a 50 x 50 segment of tree trunk surface. Fine for the circumference. For the height, assuming that the tree trunk is probably half the height of a tree from base to crown, we would need roughly 15 (rather more really, but we'll keep things easy) of these cross-sections to make it to 5 miles, given that each such cross-section as a height of 500 yards.

That is a lot of map, but it is just about workable. It suggests that a way of presenting a megadungeon inside a 10-mile high tree would be to break it down into 15 cross sections of 500 x 700 yards. Each such cross section could have burrowed into it a 'major' dungeon level of 30-50 chambers (perhaps with some sub-levels), together with other mini-dungeons and monster lairs, as well as things like wizards' dwellings, villages, druid temples, and whatever other adventure sites you were to come up with.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Modes of Play, Ranked

Face to Face play is clearly the superior method for playing RPGs. It is the only mode of play which  provides one of the central, and perhaps the most important, benefits of the hobby, which is that it is social and involves getting together physically with friends. You get to play a fun game and you also get to meet friends, which is important for the soul.

It is also by far and away the most convenient way to play. You get to scribble things on bits of paper to show each other; arrange items on a table to show spatial relationships between in-game objects; crowd together around the rulebook to jointly figure out what a certain passage means, and so on.

Finally, it is thoroughly enjoyable to roll dice when other people are physically present and watching and care about the result. Casinos figured this out a long time ago.

Online visual play is the next best thing, because of course it gets closest to resembling face-to-face play, but it has obvious deficiencies which make it in most respects inferior. Interacting behind a screen is just not as good as interacting in the flesh. (We're all of us now experts in this respect, perhaps unless you're lucky enough to be reading this from Sweden.) Online dice rolling lacks the tension-and-climax of the real thing. Connections drop, or lag, which can get in the way of both the practicalities of running the game and its social lubrication (comic timing, banter, etc.).

Play by chat (meaning playing through text in an IIRC channel or whatever) is close behind, and almost level with, online visual. Play by chat offers, in my experience, a very different feeling to other modes of play. It tends to be very stripped down and focused on what is actually happening and what the PCs are saying and thinking; it is very intense. It feels much less like a group of friends getting together to play a game, and more like a group of gamers who have gotten together to do what they love. There isn't a great deal in the way of joking and extraneous chatter; because it isn't quite taking place in real time, those elements of the social glue get shorn away, leaving just The Game. The fact that all the players are alone and can't see or hear each other also serves to make it highly immersive. I like it.

Play by email (which would also include playing through Messenger, Twitter, Whatsapp or whatever) and play by post (for instance on a forum, blog or whatever) are of course similar. Neither of them are great ways to play RPGs. There is something about being able to make moves or take turns at any time which, perversely, results in less engagement: the discipline of having a regular time slot in which to play makes a big difference in giving a campaign momentum. Interaction of any kind is painfully, glacially slow - whether asking a question of the DM, engaging in in-character dialogue, or just saying what a PC does and getting a response. Combat is painful. If anybody is slow to post, things immediately get bogged down, like being stuck in traffic. With all of that said, play-by-email is far superior to play-by-post. The virtue of play-by-email is that at least everybody passively receives messages in their inbox and can reply to them conveniently. Play-by-post requires them to actually visit a website, which is absolutely fatal to engagement. I have been involved in PBEM campaigns that have lasted years - one of them is still going, and must be 15 years old by now - and I ran one myself which lasted for over two years, with multiple daily posts. PBP, on the other hand, I have never managed to have any success with.

I doubt that my ranking will be controversial, but hey, it beats reading yet another news item about coronavirus.

Friday, 17 April 2020

"A Man of Strong Seed" - Ryuutama AAR, Part III

[The recap for last session can be found here.]

The Characters

  • Jojotekina Gyoza ("Jojo"), a technical minstrel armed with a flute 
  • Kestrel, an attack-type hunter who bears a mysterious scroll that he believes he must deliver to somebody, whose identity he does not know 
  • Ogesana Fall, a magic-type noble, and his trusty but ignoble donkey, Bartholemew 
  • Virid, the GMPC (Ryuutama has these, but they don't do too much and don't really appear initially), a mysterious green-bearded old man

What Happened

We had paused last time on a cliffhanger, with Kestrel about to digest a toadstool given him by a myconid, based on the theory that it would give him transcendental knowledge and allow him to decipher the text on some pieces of slate found in a collapsed chamber in the dungeon. It did indeed do this. He discovered that the slates were a 'saga' written by a dwarf called Cuthbert of Blackhaggs Rigg, who had come with an expedition to this hill in order to explore ancient tunnels and perhaps found a colony. The members of the expedition had entirely converted to the worship of something called the Moray God, and had gone to an underground lake and drowned themselves. Only Cuthbert remained, and the 'saga' was his re-telling of the tragic tale.

However, the toadstool also caused Kestrel to hallucinate that he was being attacked by a plague of locusts. His condition was made worse by the efforts of his comrades to revive him, which included blinding him with magic, and playing music into his ears, which only served to make his hallucinations worse. Eventually, he was reduced to a weeping wreck of a man, dreaming that he had entered into an infinite hell consisting only of locusts, all of them repetitively singing childhood songs, and having to be led about by his comrades by the hand.

All of this noise had also roused the attention of other dungeoneers. These appeared not long after all of this. Their leader, Portos, was a heavily bearded and moustachioed figure armed with a guisarme and with expensive-looking armour and clothing; he immediately took a shine to Ogesana Fall, who he recognised as a fellow man of good breeding, excellent pedigree and 'strong seed'. Accompanying him were his manservant and maidservant: Kyrie, a lanky bald fellow with a short sword, and Maria, a youngish hedge-witch. 

Portos and Ogesana established that both of them were in search of tadpoles - although Portas insisted on referring to them as 'polliwoggles' - having both been employed by mysterious 'powers' to do this. They drew up an agreement that they would join forces, but that at the end of their expedition they would duel to first blood to determine who would get the polliwoggle. They also rested for a time in a chamber which Portos and his comrades had discovered, which seemed safe. This was long enough for Kestrel to return to normality, at least, although his thinking remained muddled from the effects of the hallucinogen.

Portos's expedition had discovered a side chamber which appeared to be architecturally unstable, but which appeared to contain a figurine or statuette of some kind in an alcove. They had also discovered a way down deeper into the caves, and had heard sounds of water coming from that direction. Ogesana decided to investigate the side chamber first. Indeed, the ceiling of this chamber was sagging dangerously, and indeed, there was an alcove in its far wall containing a statuette of some kind. Ogesana went to retrieve it, creeping gingerly forward, but his efforts at stealth were to no avail - the ceiling caved in and gave him a nasty head wound. But he did managed to get the figurine, with some help from Jojo. 

The figurine proved to be brass one, depicting a moray eel rearing vertically upwards. At its base were words written in the same script as on the slates: Kestrel was able to read it as saying simply, 'Beneath, Infinity'. Maria attempted to tend Ogesana's wound, the pair having struck up a flirtatious bond of a kind, but eventually the group decided not to waste any healing herbs (of which they had one bunch) on him, and to press on downwards into the caves to find the source of water.

This involved a small amount of back-tracking and then a downward plunge into the black underworld. Eventually the explorers emerged into a very large cavern filled with stalagmites. Edging their way around it, they came to a large alcove, taller than a man, in which were the shattered stone fragments of what must have been a statue. Only its plinth remained, again bearing the motif, 'Beneath, Infinity'. Scraping through the rubble, Jojo discovered a beautiful golden dagger hilt, designed to look like a coiled eel with the open mouth at the pommel, and with a circular grip guard depicting waves. 

Immediately, it became evident that there would have to be a duel after the expedition was over between Ogesana and Portos to determine who would get not only the polliwoggle but also any other treasures recovered. Reluctantly, this was agreed, with the details planned to be hashed out later.

They continued exploring and came soon to a vast, dark, underground lake with a pebbled shore and no end in sight - which seemed to be moving with a very gentle wave-like motion. Through clever use of echolocation and Jojo's flute [I have no idea if this is even remotely possible] they established that there was solid rock some distance away in one direction, but that the lake seemed to expand limitlessly in all others. 

As they were doing this, THINGS rose from the depths. The skeletons of dwarves, grabbing hammers, and some hideous tentacled beast that seemed to be made of pure water. Battle commenced! But the fight, ultimately, was rather one-sided. Our brave explorers were victorious. But this did not come without cost: Ogesana was felled, left unconscious and at death's door. The task next time would immediately be how to save him.


This was a fun session but Ryuutama does increasingly have the feel of a 'beginner RPG'. The rules really aren't suited to creative play, and the combat system very rapidly becomes insufficient to adjudicate what's going on unless you treat it like a 'you hit me, now I hit you' Final Fantasy-type fight. Still, I'm looking forward to next time and what awaits our brave adventurers beyond the lake.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

The D&D Clerihew Challenge: Once You Pop You Really Can't Stop

You may remember my post about D&D clerihews, which took the internet by storm in February 2017. No? Nor did I until just before. But it popped back into my head and I re-caught the clerihew bug.

All you have to do for a D&D clerihew (and I wasn't even trying to make that rhyme) is to write a four line poem, AABB, about a D&D creature. Let's try some. This time I swear it'll go viral. (Are we allowed to use that metaphor anymore?)

A sphinx
Never blinks
And never lies
But they do get sore eyes

Don't bother keeping scores
When playing darts
Against xvarts

Like forks
Which are useful when eating pies
And for jabbing in peoples' eyes

A green hag
Always carries a bag
To hold spell components
And the dried gonads of former opponents

Have big brains
And blue skin
And a taste for gin

Of farts
And decomposing body parts

Like rhubarb fools
But what will steal their hearts
Are eyeball tarts

Interesting fellows
Are Derros
They like torture porn
And long walks along the beach at dawn

I make no apologies.

You get a gold star if you can do one containing a rhyme for "giant", "illithid" or "kobold".

Saturday, 11 April 2020

"We All Like Water" - Ryuutama AAR, Part II

[Last session's recap can be found here.]

The Characters

  • Jojotekina Gyoza ("Jojo"), a technical minstrel armed with a flute 
  • Kestrel, an attack-type hunter who bears a mysterious scroll that he believes he must deliver to somebody, whose identity he does not know 
  • Ogesana Fall, a magic-type noble, and his trusty but ignoble donkey, Bartholemew Virid, the GMPC (Ryuutama has these, but they don't do too much and don't really appear initially), a mysterious green-bearded old man

What Happened

The PCs spent the night at Samantha's windmill, having agreed that in return for a safe haven they would fulfil whatever she desired of them in the morning. Having eaten well and sung great songs of their former glories, and been well fed by Samantha's starling servants, our brave adventurers settled down for the night. On the morning, they discovered the nature of Samantha's request. The witch had a rivalry with a mysterious neighbour, both of whom were competing to try to capture one of the giant tadpoles which had emerged from below the ground in a prior epoch. [See the background to the setting here.] Samantha suspected she knew the location of one of them, in the roots of a hill about two days' walk away. But for some reason she was unable to scry inside, and she was unwilling to risk danger on a wild goose chase. So she wanted the PCs to investigate, and gave each of them a single pebble to carry. She would be able to see through these pebbles and confirm whatever the PCs discovered. If they found a giant tadpole, she would know, and likewise if they didn't. If they managed to bring the tadpole back physically, so much the better.

The PCs set off. The first day brought more energy-sapping rain, but also an encounter with a friendly, or at least nonaggressive, myconid, a thing resembling a person made from the stalk of a mushroom. The PCs traded some of their rations with it in return for 3 exotically-coloured toadstools, though they were unable to discover the true nature of the things as they could not communicate with the myconid beyond gesture.

The next day was fine and the PCs made good progress travelling through open moor. They eventually came to the hill which Samantha had identified, which, sure enough, had a ravine cleft into the middle of it, with a large cave at the top. The PCs immediately realised they had planned poorly. They had no rations for the return journey, having run out that day, and no torches or other light-sources, or rope. They were able to remedy the problem of lack of light because Kestrel had no difficulty getting a fire going. Perhaps unwisely, they chose to ignore their other difficulties and press on into the cave (leaving Bartholemew to munch on grass outside.)

They immediately regretted not having a rope, because as soon as they were inside the cave they were having to ascent a steep slope of scree. But they luckily managed to get to the top without injury. They were then faced with a T junction - the left arm feeling somewhat colder than the right. Ogesana, reasoning that tadpoles are cold-blooded "so they'll like cold places", suggested left, but he was outvoted and the gang went right. They soon discovered a large open chamber with a number of doors. Listening at them, they heard nothing, but Hunter discovered one was rotten; he kicked it down and was confronted by a large cave cricket, as big as a horse, which immediately set to a shrill keening with its legs and frantically backing away from danger. Hunter and Ogesana tried to placate it, to no avail, while Jojo watched the other doorways. He was able at least to provide a warning when one of them opened to reveal two filthy, goblin-esque things decorated with feathers.

The situation could easily have turned violent. But our PCs in this game are explorers, not dungeoneers. They chose parlay. The creatures showed a willingness to listen, although they thought the quest for a tadpole to be absurd; they decided to summon their leader, the Great One, and his shaman. 

Minutes later a flock of the things arrived, together with their two leaders - the Great One, wearing a wooden sun mask painted black, and the shaman, wearing a similar mask painted red. They interrogated the intruders, but were soon won over by an unlikely gambit - Ogesana's observation, brought up because of their discussion about where tadpoles might be found, that all living things have something in common: a liking for water. Having established that, indeed, everybody present liked water, the ice was broken (pun intended) and the goblin-things told the PCs that these caves did indeed contain an underground lake far in its depths. But they themselves were terrified to go there and knew little of it; the shaman vaguely remembered a tale from his childhood suggesting that the lake led ultimately to that vast source of infinite water from which all seas, rivers, springs and lakes derive.

The PCs said their farewells, having promised to report back to the goblin-things their findings, if they did not die down there in the dark, and set off exploring the caves. They proved to be labyrinthine. Eventually, the PCs stumbled upon a half-collapsed chamber that was full of strange rectangular shaped pots, knee-high. These turned out to be filled with slates, each covered in unknown writing. They showed the slates to Samantha through their pebbles, and were about to move on, but then Hunter struck on the idea of eating one of the toadstools they had got from the myconid, reasoning that ingesting fungus can sometimes give a person insights which they would not ordinarily have. That seemed like a good cliffhanger at which to end.


An hour and a half is too short, really - it felt like we were only just hitting our stride when we had to end. But needs must. I remain to be convinced by Ryuutama. I experimented with the travel rules a little bit so as to try to make the effects a little less random, but in the end those rules barely featured because the players happened to be lucky with a lot of their/my rolling. 

I also deliberately 'soft pedalled' on violence and aggression and the negative consequences of poor decision-making, on the basis that this campaign is supposed to have a more friendly and innocent 'Squaresoft' feel. The player likewise refrained from doing what they would have if it were a different system. If this had been D&D there would have been no way the encounter with the goblin-things would have been peaceful. But it worked nicely.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

On Kings Versus Chiefs and the Meaning of Words

When I was a university student I read a lot of Richard Hakluyt, a 16th century English writer who chronicled the early English exploration of North America, as well as journeys to many other parts of the globe, often through interviewing eyewitnesses. I don't remember his works in any great detail, because this is now 20 years ago, over half a lifetime, and while his major works are on Project Gutenberg (apart from the one that I spent the most time on, Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America and the Ilands Adjacent unto the Same, Made First of All by Our Englishmen and Afterwards by the Frenchmen and Britons), most of them are sadly practically unreadable because the (extensive) footnotes are integrated into the body of the text.

What I do remember was the, to us, charming eccentricity of 16th century English. Nowadays we refer to Native American chiefs as, well, chiefs. But Hakluyt called them 'kings'. This small difference in terminology makes a big difference to how the reader conceptualises things. Think of a 'chief' and you picture the head of a small, fairly disorganised and informal tribal group. Think of a 'king' and there's an organised, formal kingdom with the trappings of sovereignty. I'll leave the critical interpretation of the shift in how the leaders of Native American polities were referred to from 'king' to 'chief' to the historians - the implications are obvious to anybody who thinks about it for five seconds. I'm interested here in the lesson this holds for RPGs.

It's common to refer, for example, to orc, or kobold, or goblin (or whatever) leaders as 'chiefs'. Things change when, instead, you start talking about them as 'kings'. Or, for that matter, as kritarchs or oligarchs or theocrats. Just a simple change to a single word results in a significant change in the way one thinks of the underlying society. A kobold chief is the boss of an unruly gang of disorganised kobolds. A kobold oligarch is something else. And this isn't just true for the terms one uses for rulers. A society that has orc 'shamans' is one thing. One which has orc 'priests' is another. There are societies which make goblin shamans, and there are those which produce goblin wizards. They are not the same.

Of course, you can also come at this issue from the opposite angle. You generally get elf lords, kings, wizards and priests. An elf 'chief' suggests something else entirely. Not to mention a dwarf 'shaman'.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

The Implied Appendix N

I expect most of the people reading this blog know what Appendix N is. It has tended in my experience of reading blogs, forums and so on to have been reduced to a kind of canonical list of influences on Gygax when he was creating AD&D 1st edition. Gygax obviously never intended it to be that way, and in his own framing of his list, his love for those authors and works was built on a foundation formed from the stories his father told him as a child, comic books, movies, fairy tales, and books of mythology and bestiaries.

In other words, the Appendix N 'canon' has to be understood as floating on a great sea of fantastically-oriented cultural products with its far shore in the very ancient past, and which probably informs D&D just as much if not more than its purportedly direct influences.

I think of this as the 'implied Appendix N' - the vast ocean of stuff from which the Appendix N books, and hence the many implied settings of D&D, emerge, like clumsy early quadraped things from a Devonian vista. What I mean to say is: Gygax had his direct and explicitly-acknowledged inspirations, but those inspirations were part of a milieu of gargantuan scope and which had great implicit influence on what D&D came to be.

One of the fields of literature which I think undoubtedly influenced Gygax (and Arneson and the rest, of course), probably more than he knew, was that swathe of belle epoque SF and 'boy's own' adventure stories that in my head begins with Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) and ends somewhere around the publication of The Hobbit (1937). This was a truly astonishing era, responsible for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912), Sir H Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885), HG Wells' The Time Machine (1895), perhaps even Machen's "The White People" (1904), and many, many other bona fide classics with which you will undoubtedly be familiar; what interests me about so many of these books is that, as well as being great things in their own right, they also sort of comprise the building blocks of what D&D is all about.

You have adventuring in search of treasure (Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines); you have dungeon exploration (King Solomon's Mines again, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Pellucidar' books); you have wilderness exploration leading to exotic weirdness (The Lost World, The Land That Time Forgot); evil humanoids living below the earth (The Time Machine); sinister cults and black magic ("The White People", The Great God Pan, The King in Yellow); and most of all you have daring and derring-do performed by atomised individuals, usually 'men without pasts', who, lacking families or relationships or geographic ties, seem to appear just like D&D PCs, from the ether, to pursue their goals.

Many of these novels read like they could be mid-period TSR adventure modules, the only difference being that they tend to be plotted around one protagonist rather than a group of PCs. The classic example of this in my mind is HG Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau; you could practically run the novel as a mini-campaign of three or so sessions if you didn't mind a bit of railroading. The PCs are shipwrecked on a mysterious island owned by an eccentric wizard who has some odd-looking servants, and go from there. And many of the great novels of that era are of the same ilk.

What TSR-era D&D and the novels of that era also share in common is an innocent sort of optimistic, diet/caffeine-free machismo: TSR D&D PCs, like Wells or Verne or Doyle protagonists, are active and energetic sorts who believe in action and making the best of things - that where there's a will there's a way, and that to a certain extent one makes one's own luck in life. They get on with it. There is something appealing and refreshing (in an era of sensitive and moody anti-heroes) about that willingness to just get up and go off on an adventure which I see write large on the fiction of those days and the 'vibe' of D&D in its formative stages.

Friday, 3 April 2020

The Real World is Weird Enough/Getting the Band Back Together - Ryuutama AP, Pt 1

Last night I sat down virtually with Patrick Stuart, Nate and David W to play Ryuutama.

At one time this was a real-life weekly gaming group - we played campaigns of Apocalypse World, Cyberpunk 2020, D&D/Yoon-Suin, and a heck of a lot of one-shots and story games, many of which I can no longer remember (although Microscope and In a Wicked Age were certainly two of them). We continued to play Pendragon and D&D 5e for some years online, but had not really sat down to game a great deal together since, I would say, 2015 or 2016. It was great to get the band back together.

I was indeed going to use that phrase as the title for the campaign, but I also liked what Patrick said when discussing whether to play Ryuutama straight (as whimsical, charmingly bucolic occidental fantasy akin to the setting of Secret of Mana), or "weird". As he put it, the real world is weird enough. Rightly or wrongly - I won't venture into the debate here - the UK is now effectively a police state and the population is under indefinite curfew. These are not normal times.

That said, things got weird fast - within less than 5 minutes, in fact. But whatever. Here's an AP report:

The World

Ryuutama lets the players create the world together. Yes, it's that sort of game. But I generally enjoy that kind of thing. The world we created is called Xoft (some Vance with your Ryuutama, sir?). It is carried on the back of a giant horned frog swimming in the cosmic ocean, and bears the scars of great floods from when the frog last submerged itself beneath the waves. One of the horns - possibly both - houses a vast city whose people regularly make war against those living on the plains on the frog's back. Recently, a pangolin-shaped meteorite flew across the night sky and, afterwards, giant tadpoles wriggled up from below the earth, as though emerging from the frog's back like a Suriname toad. There is also a problem of dessertification and a 'dinotopia' of semi-intelligent dinosaurs with human companions.

Yeah, not exactly what I think of when somebody says "charming occidental bucolic fantasy", but there's already plenty I know I can get my teeth into.

The Characters

  • Jojotekina Gyoza ("Jojo"), a technical minstrel armed with a flute
  • Kestrel, an attack-type hunter who bears a mysterious scroll that he believes he must deliver to somebody, whose identity he does not know
  • Ogesana Fall, a magic-type noble, and his trusty but ignoble donkey, Bartholemew
  • Virid, the GMPC (Ryuutama has these, but they don't do too much and don't really appear initially), a mysterious green-bearded old man
Ogesana Fall is the leader, partly because he is a noble, and partly because he insisted on it.

What Happened

The PCs began in Hebron Hill, the beginning of their voyage of exploration, which all people on Xoft traditionally do at least once in their lives. The nature of the world is such that each town exists somewhat in isolation due to "reasons", which means nobody really knows anything about other settlements elsewhere on the vast expanse of the frog's back. Voyages of exploration take place to find out, but each such voyage is paradoxically also different from all the others.

It was raining when they set off, and this had the effect almost straight away of weakening Jojo and Kestrel from the sapping effects of the cold and damp.

The PCs decided to get out of the rain. They knew that due north were mountains, north-east were forests, north-west were forests mixed with marshes, south-west were grassy prairies, and south-east were more arid plains. Ogesana Fall, in the mistaken belief that the forests and marshes to the north-east were full of delightful nature spirits while those to the north-west were full of man-eating spiders, suggested north-east. They headed off in that direction, and soon discovered it was dark, gloomy, overgrown, and, basically rather like Mirkwood Forest. They made slow progress.

By mid afternoon they realised that they were approaching a lake. And through the trees, they could make out the threatening shape of a griffon, perched on the shore and gazing at something in the water. The griffon apparently realised they were there, but was unwilling to get into the thickness of the forest where it would be unable to fly. The PCs knew that griffons liked to eat horse flesh, but not humans particularly.

Jojo, remembering that the people of Hebron Hill had a folk tale about a griffon called the Voice of the Sky who they placated with offerings, thought that it might be friendly if given an 'offering' of music. He took out his flute and approached playing a seductive melody which seemed at least to reassure the griffon there was no danger. It crept off along the shoreline, still looking at something in the water.

The PCs decided to investigate. The water was pregnant and dark and pattered with raindrops, but something could definitely be seen lurking below the surface. Thinking it was fish, Kestrel approached with an arrow drawn, ready to try to spear it. But then four humanoid zombie-things burst free from the surface, covered in lake-filth, weeds and sediment, making to pull our brave explorers into the depths.

A very one-sided fight ensued. Ogesana Fall buckled his swash, swinging from willow branches and dancing on top of ants' nests and boulders and thrusting his rapier. Jojo led three of the zombies on a merry chase up the shore, while Kestrel peppered them with arrows. And then the griffon swooped in to finish off the last one, dragging it away to devour.

A job well done. But the PCs realised that in all the excitement Ogesana's donkey, Bartholomew, was missing. He had clearly been spooked by the violence, or else the presence of the griffon, and decided to find somewhere safer. A search instantly took place, Kestrel tracking the donkey's path through the bracken; by late afternoon they finally found him, after having been led very far off their way indeed. He was in a clearing on a small hill rising up above the trees, silhouetted against the skyline - and next to him was a large, imposing windmill built of black stone.

Ogesana summoned the donkey, but as soon as this took place the owner of the windmill appeared. This was a woman in her late 50s, with long grey-blonde hair down to her toes, smoking a pipe that was emitting vast plumes of foul-smelling smoke. From the windmill a flock of chattering starlings at that moment took flight, soaring into the air in a swarming cloud before settling back on the roof, hissing and whistling to each other like many gossiping children. The PCs thought there was a reasonable likelihood this was a witch. They hoped, quote, it was "one of the good ones".

Samantha invited them into the windmill. In it, they found a homely kitchen and pantry with a bed to one side, the only unusual object being a large flat bowl full of impossibly clear water, resting on a plinth. Samantha made them an offer. They could stay the night in complete security and safety, and indeed could return to do so whenever they wished. But in return they would have to agree to whatever request was placed on them in the morning, and fulfil it. Ogesana ventured that they should agree, whereupon Samantha took his word as an oath, binding on the whole group. For good or ill, the PCs settled down for the night.


And we paused there. Because it was our first time with the system the fight took ages, and we didn't have much longer than 90 minutes available. I already wonder about Ryuutama. I like the 'feel' of the art and mood. I am not sure that the system can survive the scrutiny of experienced RPGers, particularly of the 'old school' stripe. The combat system, for instance, is highly abstract and based essentially on the Final Fantasy model, with the PCs and monsters being arranged in "ranks" and taking turns to attack each other. This quickly fell apart the instant anybody began to think outside the box with the scenery and environment - which indeed happened almost instantly. The way the system makes travel 'interesting' is also contingent on placing what are effectively random conditions on the PCs through a fairly boring series of dice rolls which you are then supposed to 'role play' to bring to life. It is not big on PC agency as a factor in determining what happens and how bad it is. And I am not sure that what we achieved ultimately would have been any different had we been using BECMI D&D. With that said, I really enjoyed the session - it was great fun and I'm already looking forward to next Thursday.