Tuesday, 3 August 2021

New Release: The Fixed World, Volume I - Dawn-in-Winter


Long-time readers of the blog will be familiar with The Fixed World, my 'D&D turned to 11' setting, which is an entire world lying motionless beneath its sun - so that where it is winter, it is always winter, and where it is dawn, it is always dawn (and so on).

Well, I am going to release it, volume by volume, after having decided it was just too big to do in one book. The first volume, Dawn-in-Winter is now available in PDF at the Noisms Games website for purchase, for the princely sum of £2.

From the blurb:


This is the first of a multi-volume series. Each volume contains information on a portion of the Fixed World, maps, mini-bestiaries, guidance on creating PCs, and tables helping you generate contents to run many entire campaigns of your own. This volume covers Dawn-in-Winter, where it is always dawn and always winter. In it are: 

  • Ettercap queendoms made of silk 
  • Horseshoe-crab polities on frigid shores 
  • Nomadic troll kings with bariaur servants
  • Peripatetic heath elves roaming from tower to tower on barren hilltops
  • Were-raven baronies in dank, dark forests
  • Glaciers with grimlock cities
  • And more besides 

This is a ‘no frills’ product of 45 pages, almost all of which are text, and with 8 maps. It was all produced and laid out by the author.


That's right, I tried my hand at layout, and the main design principle is 'no art is better than bad art'. 

If you would like a preview, most of the text is available on this post, unformatted. The published version includes maps, better formatting, additional tables and flavour text, and some rules tweaks.

Please feel free to buy if you like the idea, and spread the word accordingly.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Summerland, or the Spookiness of Rural England in August


Rural southern England is, for the tourist, like an archipelago of island villages separated from each other by gulfs of agricultural sea - fields, hedgerows, trees, tiny single lane roads, footpaths, ditches, brambles, woodland. 

Each village you pass through while driving is quaint, pretty, sleepy, and prosperous - pink/blue/yellow houses; ancient sprawling oaks on wide, perfectly trimmed greens; roadside stalls containing fresh eggs and honey; always a big 15th century pub with lots of BMWs and Mercedes parked outside; always an ornate, grand and beautiful church, impossibly large for such a small settlement and with an impossibly large graveyard dotted with yew trees; always a village hall with colourful bunting. 

Then within less than a minute you have driven through and you are on the other side and in a different world. Hedgerows cramp you in, occlude your vision. Through gaps in the foliage you see fields sweltering in the sun; copses of brooding trees, big and green; scarecrows; deer; distant farmhouses and water towers. On a hot day with no other cars on the road and storm clouds brewing in the distance you feel as though this landscape could have been here forever, and indeed could be endless - that you could drive for the rest of your life and see nothing but more fields, more woods, more scarecrows, more dilapidated barns and far-off solitary dwellings. 

Until you come to another village and a 30 mph speed limit sign and the pattern repeats. 

As a northerner and a city dweller I find this landscape both beautiful and disturbing. The truth is, I am more comfortable in the north's wild moors and bleak, windswept hills than I am in this bucolic bricolage where the furniture of a rural idyll - the hedges, fields, and country lanes - seem almost to crowd you in and swallow you. You are not being welcomed into rural bliss. You are darting from village to village, hoping that somewhere in between you don't stray down the wrong road and get gulped down into a timeless, measureless void - a countryside labyrinth from which there is no return and that will hold you suspended like an insect in amber for the rest of eternity. 

I envisage a setting in which the people dwell in small villages between which are fields and woodlands carefully husbanded by things that are malevolent and strange. The village-dwellers never stray beyond their boundaries unless they can possibly help it, and when they do, they always stick to the tried and true paths. They never go over that style, or go down that side track, or go into that copse. And as soon as they see somebody out there, working in the fields or walking down a track, hoe in hand, they freeze - or flee in terror. They live surrounded by the fear of long, hot, hazy afternoons when the fields doze in the heat; of mornings cool with mist and dew when the dwellers of the farmland are abroad; of the sudden eruption of motion as wood pigeons are disturbed by someone walking through the trees; of the distant sound of gunfire - pop pop pop - and bugles that signal a hunt has begun...

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Sexing Up Language

Patrick S, the False Machine, made me think about languages in RPGs. This is one of those areas, I feel (like underwater adventuring and flying combat) which is still crying out for somebody in the OSRchipelago to revolutionise with something really useful, fresh and compelling. I will by no means attempt to do that here. But here are some thoughts about how to make languages interesting and meaningful.

1. Areal Common Tongues

Different jargons and lingua francas function in different parts of the map. So you can speak one sort of 'common' to all the monsters in hexes AA, AB, and AC, but have to use a different kind (or a translator) in hexes BA, BB, and BC. Adds a hurdle to exploration - the good kind of hurdle, which requires more engagement with the game world. 

2. Translators as Resources

Real-life explorers, I once read, often used young girls as translators, because being young and female is generally correlated with excellent language-learning ability. The PCs having to keep safe a frail adolescent on their adventures could add a lot of nuance to proceedings. But equally, you could just say that the common tongue is really difficult and requires so much training (or special equipment like whistles, flutes, drums, and so on) that it requires an expensive specialist. The PCs have to pay money to hire one, and have to stop the otherwise useless NPC from being killed into the bargain. 

3. The Common Tongue is Not Just a 'Tongue'

Maybe the common tongue incorporates pheromones, or the use of coloured paint, or some other expensive or rare chemical (of, if you want to go more exotic and strange, maybe some 'common' phonemes can only be produced by a species of insect or bird that you have to carry around with you and encourage to squeak at certain moments). It's expensive to pay for all this stuff - or it is a rare resource the PCs have to search for, and husband. (Do we really need to parlay with these orcs? No, we can't waste the pheromones!) 

4. The Common Tongue is Dangerous

Speaking common is not to be trifled with, because talking to a dragon, orc, elf, hook horror or whatever is to have one's consciousness moulded, however fleetingly, by alien concepts and thought-patterns that, because one understands the words being used, one is forced to entertain. The effort can result in madness or corruption, and whenever one speaks common there is a small risk of either of those or both occurring.

5. The Common Tongue Has to be Performed

The common tongue is a crude communication tool which you actually have to deploy at the table. Maybe it's an SOS style system of taps and pauses. Maybe it is comprised of words, but there is a strictly limited list of, say, 51 or 101 that you can use. Maybe it is made up of gestures. Much hilarity ensues. 

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Art Contest Prize Announcement

A few months ago I launched an art competition, the requirement for which was to draw a colour picture of Laren Dar, a PC from my weekly game, described as:


An Etruscan fighting man wielding a magical Thracian axe and shield, wearing a wooden helmet shaped like a soldier-ant's head, a wooden breastplate decorated with soldier ant pictographs, a red silk surcoat covered in strange Etruscan lettering in gold, and a cloak made out of falcon feathers.  


It had been my intention to announce a winner, but I find it very hard to pick between these two, so I have decided they are joint winners. Both will get a copy of the first level of the 'megadungeon inside a giant tree' game I am running (as soon as I've got it typed up and vaguely usable!). 

The first is by Alexander Dzuricky (https://knightattheopera.blogspot.com/):



And the second is by Marc Caldwell (@scavengine on instagram):



I was really impressed with the quality of these pics. I was expecting stick-men at best. Thanks to everybody who took part, and congratulations to the winners!

As a bittersweet postscript, Laren Dar was killed by a jumping-spider elf just a few short weeks after the competition was launched. He now resides in a sarcophagus in the PCs' ever-growing cemetery at the back of their garden. 

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Recommend Things to Review and Read

People have said that they enjoyed the recent spate of reviews that I did. So I thought I would ask the erudite and educated readers of my blog for some further recommendations of things to read and review. Preferably OSR or 'OSR adjacent'.

I also thought that since I am asking, I would ask for some other reading recommendations, as I am finally coming to the end of a huge backlog of books bought during lockdown. I am looking for:


  • A good, detailed, readable, narrative account of the American Civil War (preferably a big fat tome or series of tomes)
  • Political biographies
  • Narrative histories in general
  • Good non-Amber Zelazny novels
  • The Best of Vance (but not what I have read: i.e. the Dying Earth/Cugel, Lyonesse, Planet of Adventure, Cadwal, Demon Princes)
  • Forgotten high-quality 1970s-1990s SF in the vein of CJ Cherryh and and Lois McMaster Bujold

The Phenomenology of Missing in Melee Combat

In old school D&D there is a great deal of missing. A 1st level character of any class battling almost any enemy will land a hit comfortably less than half of the time. It is not unusual indeed for a character to go through 5 or 6 rounds of combat just rolling dice and missing. 

Despite what we know about 1 minute combat rounds, and despite the fact that we know that a failure 'to hit' doesn't necessarily mean an actual failure to hit but a failure to score a damaging hit (which is why I once half-jokingly suggested that the 'to hit' roll should be called the 'to attrit' roll instead), in my experience we still at the table tend to imagine in our minds' eyes that when a character 'misses' they have taken a swing at the enemy and physically missed. And that is how we tend to describe events, too: 'You swing at the orc and miss.'

I've sometimes toyed with a minor house rule to try to nudge me away from thinking in those terms: if a character 'misses' by more than 5 then you describe him as having hit but failed to penetrate the enemy's armour or shield. But that still links the dice roll too closely to concrete events in combat, when it is  something much more abstract than that; the result is really an aggregate of everything that the PC does in the course of a minute. That could be many 'hits', or none.

How do you describe 'missing' during combat?

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

The Gallery of 3 Mile Tree Art

Telling somebody about your campaign is like telling somebody about a dream. With the best will in the world, their interest will at best be polite. Is showing them art from your campaign any different? Perhaps not...but it's my blog, god damn it, and I'll do what I want with it.


Laren Dar's robe (now worn by Pupli Agnli, himself recently deceased). It was stolen from an Etruscan magic-user who was slain by a magic missile. Note magic missile-sized hole. The Etruscan writing is genuine.


Another iteration of the above.


A portrait of Laren Dar, sent by the excellent Grand Commodore. Note soldier-ant wooden helmet and falcon-feather cloak.

The original Etruscan garment, which will, it seems likely, be adopted as a mantle by successive maru of the worshipers of the Etruscan god Nortia. 

A headdress which permits the reading of any language. It has peacock feathers. Its origin is unknown.

A jade short-sword given by the methusulan faerie Thuac-Ten to the party on the occasion of his death, to help them in defeating the evil lord Djem-Thut.



Part of the map of level 1 of the inside of the tree trunk. This was about 5 sessions ago. They've revealed quite a bit more since.


Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Yoon-Suin 2nd Edition Art Update

Work on the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin continues apace. Matt Adams is doing the (all new) art:








And Tom Fitzgerald is doing the maps:




Thursday, 10 June 2021

The Story is the Campaign, Not the PCs - Or, is D&D a Soap Opera?

Today, a charming and interesting PC, who had taken on an unlikely leadership role in my weekly game and had literally just reached 2nd level after a heroic sequence of events, died meaninglessly in a random encounter with earwigmen. 

My game is rich in senseless PC death. By my count we have lost 8 or 9 PCs so far, in something over 20 sessions. Some of these had reached level 3 or 4. None of them really died in grand circumstances - and a high proportion were killed by wandering monsters. 

The deaths have been deflating. At times, old school D&D can seem nihilistic. Just as things seem to be going in one direction, a roll of the dice (I do almost all the dice rolling in the open) sends everything careering sideways - and sometimes seemingly backwards. 

I am usually relatively sanguine about this, because deflation is a valid emotion too, and I remain convinced that the realistic possibility of PC death raises the stakes and makes the game feel more real. But I am also human, and I was gutted when that earwigman rolled maximum damage and did away with poor Pupli. 

At times like this, it helps to remind oneself that, while it is an OSR mantra that the 'story' emerges through play and not by design, it is probably more accurate to say that story operates at a different level of abstraction to modern RPGs. Ever since the 'silver age' of RPGs, the idea has been that the story is about what happens to the individual PCs. In an old school game, by contrast, the story is really the campaign. Individual PCs come and go, but they are not the focus - the narrative is about the events that take place (in which the PCs, of course, play a role). Pupli the Etruscan 'Maru' of Nortia died today, but his player slipped into the role of one of the disciples that he had gathered, and events will take their course next week in the aftermath of his death.

This, in my view, ultimately instantiates a much richer understanding of story than that which is advocated in the mainstream. A PC dies and ceases to be of interest directly, but we become interested in his death and what it signifies, and this adds fresh layers. What will Pupli's followers do now that he has gone? Will his comrades try to avenge him? Suddenly there is more going on in the campaign than there was before, and this is what matters, because - to reiterate - the campaign is the story, and the story is the campaign.

Another way of putting this is that D&D is a bit like a soap opera, but with orcs. Individual characters arrive, and we might like them and grow to care about them, but they'll all go away again in the end (even  Ken Barlow). The story is not about any particular one of them, and it survives their deaths, comas, accidents, etc. It's Neighbours that we watch, not "The Adventures of Felicity Scully". You would be hard pressed to argue that Neighbours or Coronation Street are not in themselves stories - Neverending Stories perhaps - merely because they have no clearly delineated beginnings, middles or ends, or permanent characters. Indeed, the fact that no character is bigger than the capital-S Story is a large part of the appeal. 

Thursday, 3 June 2021

[Reviews] Dark Streets & Darker Secrets, Hypertellurians, Pariah, Vagabonds of Dyfed

A cluster of skerries on the very outskirts of the OSRchipelago are glimpsed on the horizon. In low wind and bright sunshine, we guide our sloop, HMS Review, to the leeward and scan the shores with our telescopes for signs of life.

Dark Streets & Darker Secrets

Written in a month for NaGaDeMon (National Game Design Month), this is a stylish, nicely illustrated mash-up of Unknown Armies, Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk 2020, and its ilk - you could probably also run World of Darkness style games with it, too. It is redolent of the mood and 'edgy' qualities which were de rigueur in the 1990s, though with self-consciously old school elements (random 'characteristics' of the Dark World, some of which are better than others; random adventure generators; disclaimers encouraging the DM to avoid the need to balance encounters and make things artificially fair). For something written in a month, it is an impressive feat. 

Hypertellurians

A 'science fantasy adventure role playing game', Hypertellurians gets the Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon/John Carter/Barbarella/Original Series Trek tone exactly right in its art and mood. I forgive it its forgisms ("be a fan of the players and their characters"; "fail forward", "say yes", "don't hide the adventure"); I almost can't forgive the extensive deployment of the term "raypunk". I can't imagine ever playing a game in the kind of universe depicted here, just because I have other cups of tea available, but if I did, this is where I would turn. It has a fresh and exciting feel, and I applaud it.

Pariah

This describes itself as 'old school roleplaying when the world was young' - that's right, it is a stone age RPG, though one that is very carefully thought-out and (it seems to me at least) well-informed. Not so much 1 Million Years BC, or Stig of the Dump - more Lavondyss, the middle story of Fifth Head of Cerberus, Helliconia Spring, those novels about neanderthals whose name I forget. The PCs are exiles from their tribe(s); it has spirit realms and rituals; extensive rules for psychobotanicals; a random wilderness generation method; images of waif-like girls covered in face-paint and tattoos. I very much like it and would run it: this is high praise, because as a general rule I don't run anything written by anybody else.

Vagabonds of Dyfed

This is one of (many) attempts to use PbtA rules to run games in a sword & sorcery setting, with OSR sensibilities. That I think this may be a quixotic effort (which is why I have never dabbled in Dungeon World) doesn't stop me admiring those who try. This one is perhaps most notable for being very "inside baseball" and folded-in; the first three or four pages, before we even get to rules or introductions, is an extensive apologia/justification for old school play which I can imagine being useful for somebody steeped in story games but totally baffling for somebody new to RPGs. Have we more or less abandoned the notion that anybody coming to our products nowadays will be a neophyte? This seems realistic, but I can't help but feel it presents us as being akin to one of those beleaguered religious communities who no longer evangelise but gradually grow old together and die.