Friday 26 February 2010

Chaos Patrons Revisited

Critical Hits may not be my scene, but they do occasionally have interesting articles. Today, for example, I find this, by somebody called Scott, which basically just discusses ways of making it interesting when a PC gets killed.

I've never seen anyone get genuinely upset and hissy about a character dying in real life, except once when a member of a group lost his genuinely-rolled-up paladin character to an illithid and literally gave up role playing games forever thereafter (at least the last I heard). But I assume it happens all the time, because you read about it a lot on the internet. (It may just be one of those internet things, though - I sometimes suspect that there is an entire coterie of conspirators who spend their entire time on internet forums perpetuating myths, truisms and recieved wisdom like "people get really upset about their characters dying" and "random encounters are not fun" and "save-or-die is really unfair", without ever actually playing in games where characters die, random encounters happen, and save-or-die occurs.)

I also don't understand this idea that Scott talks about that death in an RPG is, for the player, "their invested time, work and creation disappear before them with a single roll of the dice" - because dead characters always add something to a campaign. It might be something as simple as his comrades going off to wreak terrible revenge on the monster that did it, or as complicated as family members showing up and dispensing quests.

However, I do like the concepts he presents for toying with death and resurrection, and it gives me the chance to resurrect my old post about Chaos Patrons (which was itself a riff on something from the roguelike game Zangband - this is where you realise that this blog is essentially a pack of stolen cards resting precariously on a borrowed table; well fuck you, I never claimed to be original!).

Here's a rejigging of that old saw.

Chaos Patrons

The layers of the Abyss are infinite, and so are its Powers. Endless multitudes of dark gods throng its depths, scheming of ways to attract more mortal followers and thus gather power. Every so often one of them finds a way to dominate some foolish individual on the prime material plane, usually through striking some kind of Faustian bargain. These chaos patrons are capricious and flighty, however, and they are just as likely to curse or bless their unfortunate worshipers.

A player may come to be adopted by a Chaos Patron in three ways:

1. He can choose for his character to follow a chaos patron at character creation.
2. He can decide to follow one during the course of the game should the opportunity arise. (The DM should come up with a suitably painful and tortuous ritual for a PC who wishes to take up the worship of a chaos god.)
3. He can choose to strike a faustian bargain with a chaos god at death, and be resurrected in return for eternal servitude.

The only requirement for a PC who wishes to worship a chaos god is that he be willing, and that he be Chaotic Evil or Chaotic Neutral in alignment (or willing to shift his existing alignment to either of those positions).

There are infinite chaos gods, and the DM and player are encouraged to be as creative as they like when coming up with their patron. Alternatively, they can roll 1d20 and consult the following table of example gods:

1. Slortar the Old
2. Mabelode the Faceless
3. Chardros the Reaper
4. Hionhurn the Executioner
5. Xiombarg the Sword Queen
6. Pyaray the Tentacled Whisperer of Impossible Secrets
7. Balaan the Grim
8. Arioch, Duke of Hell
9. Eequor, Blue Lady of Dismay
10. Narjhan, Lord of Beggars
11. Balo the Jester
12. Khorne the Blood God
13. Slaanesh, God of Pleasure
14. Nurgle, the Rotting God
15. Tzeentch, the Lord of Change
16. Djobidjoba, the King of Grubs
17. Azathoth, the Devil's Bannerman
18. Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies
19. Dusty Miller, the Mad Baker
20. Bindapaparabba, Mistress of Waterlilies

Effects of worshiping a chaos patron:

A character with a chaos patron who advances in level is given a boon or a curse at random. This either takes effect at the moment of advancement, or at the first combat after advancement, or at another time defined in the text. When the character levels up, roll 1d30 and consult the following table:
Boons and Curses

1. "Thou needst a new form, mortal!" - The character is Polymorphed into a randomly determined race without chance of saving throw (1-2: Human, 3-4: Gnome, 5-6: Dwarf, 7-8: Elf, 9-10: Halfling; roll again if the character is already of that race).
2. "Well done, mortal! Lead on!" - The character is awarded a 10% experience point bonus.
3. "Thou didst not deserve that, slave!" - The character loses 10% of his experience and is relegated to the previous level.
4. "Use my gift wisely!" - A randomly determined magical item is created on the floor beside the character.
5. "Thy deed hath earned thee a worthy blade!" - A randomly determined magical weapon is created on the floor beside the character.
6. "Thy deed hath earned thee a worthy reward!" - 1d3 randomly determined magical items are created on the floor beside the character.
7. "Behold, mortal, how generously I reward thy loyalty!" - The character is granted a limited wish.
8. "Thou art grown arrogant, mortal!" - The character loses 33% of his experience.
9. "My pets, destroy the arrogant mortal!" - 2-6 randomly determined tanar'ri (with HD equal to the character's level) are created next to the character at the beginning of his next combat.
10. "Thou needst worthier opponents!" - 1d100 dretches appear next to the character at the beginning of his next combat.
11. "Death and destruction, this pleases me!" - An earthquake occurs, centered on the character the next time he kills an opponent.
12. "Stay, mortal, and let me mold thee!" - +1 to prime requisite.
13. "I grow tired of thee, mortal!" - -1 to prime requisite.
14. "Thou needst a lesson in humility, mortal!" -1 to all stats.
15. "Receive this modest gift from me!" - +1 to all stats.
16. "Rise, my servant!" - The next time the character is reduced to 10% of his hit point total, all his hit points are immediately restored.
17. "Suffer, pathetic fool!" - A ball of chaos, 12' in radius, blast the character and anyone within its range for the character's level x4 in damage at the beginning of his next combat.
18. "Thou reliest too much on thy weapon!" - Has the same effect of a scroll of curse weapon.
19. "Thou reliest too much on thy equipment!" - Has the same effect of a scroll of curse armour.
20. "Now thou shalt pay for annoying me!" - All the effects of items 17, 14 and 10.
21. "Die, mortal!" - The character immediately takes level x4 in damage.
22. "Let me relieve thee of thine oppressors!" - Immediate Power Word: Kill on the character's opponents as soon as the next combat begins.
23. "Let me relieve thee of thine oppressors!" - Immediate banishment of the next group of undead or daemonic monsters which confront the character.
24. "Thou shalt not die yet, mortal!" - All monsters threatening the character are immediately hit for the character's level x4 in damage as soon as the next combat begins.
25. The patron ignores the character.
26. "Let me reward thee with an undead servant!" The character gains a randomly determined undead servant, of any kind with HD equal to or less than his level.
27. "Let me reward thee with a demonic servant!" The character gains a randomly determined tanar'ri servant, of any kind with HD equal to or less than his level.
28. "Let me reward thee with a servant!" The character gains a randomly determined monstrous servant, of any kind with HD equal to or less than his level.
29. "Let me reward thee with a henchman!" The character gains a henchman of his own level (1-2 Fighter, 3-4 Mage, 5-6 Cleric; all henchmen are Chaotic Evil in alignment).
30. "Mortal, bore me no longer!" The chaos patron abandons the character.

In addition, a follower of a chaos patron gains a random mutation at each level of advancement.

1. You are superhumanly strong (+4 STR)
2. You are puny (-4 STR)
3. Your brain is a living computer (+4 INT/WIS)
4. You are moronic (-4 INT/WIS)
5. You are very resilient (+4 CON)
6. You are extremely fat (+2 CON, -20' speed)
7. You are albino (-4 CON)
8. Your flesh is rotting (-2 CON, -1 CHR)
9. Your voice is a silly squeak (-4 CHR)
10. Your face is featureless (-1 CHR)
11. Your appearance is masked with illusion (overrides your current CHR and provides a new value ranging from 3 to 18)
12. You have an extra pair of eyes (detect doors/traps, 1 in 2 times)
13. You are resistant to magic (+4 bonus to save vs. magic)
14. You make a lot of strange noises (never surprise opponents)
15. You have remarkable infravision (+120' infravision)
16. You have an extra pair of legs (+30' movement)
17. Your legs are short stubs (-30' movement)
18. Electricity is running through your veins (grants an electricity aura, doing 2d6 electricity damage to any monster that hits you)
19. Your body is enveloped in flames (grants a fire aura, doing 2d6 fire damage to any monster that hits you; also gives permanent light (radius 10'))
20. Your skin is covered with warts (-2 CHR, +1 bonus to AC)
21. Your skin has turned into scales (-1 CHR, +3 bonus to AC)
22. Your skin is made of steel (-1 DEX, +5 bonus to AC)
23. You have wings (fly 150')
24. You are regenerating (regeneration, 1hp/turn)
25. You are telepathic (telepathy)
26. Your body is very limber (+3 DEX)
27. Your joints ache constantly (-3 DEX)
28. You are protected from the ravages of time (undying)
29. You are susceptible to the ravages of the elements (you take double damage from elemental attacks)
30. Your movements are precise and forceful (halfling stealth bonuses, free action)

Thursday 25 February 2010

Fudge You

There are two attitudes towards dice which I, like, totally get:

1. Dice are sacrosanct. Whatever they say goes. You roll the bones and whatever comes up comes up and cannot be changed.

2. You don't use dice. Either the game is contrived so as you don't have to use them (Amber DRPG), or you just treat the exercise as one of cooperative storytelling - a group of friends sitting around and taking it in turns to say "what happens next". (Two old friends and I did this once in Salamanca's Plaza Mayor for an entire day, taking it in turns to say one word at a time. It's more fun than it sounds, trust me.)

There's a third attitude towards dice which I think is like, totally stupid:

3. You follow the form of dice rolling, and generally speaking accept the results, but fudge them when it doesn't suit. This never made any sense to me. If "story" is so important than you feel the need to fudge dice rolls to further it, then you really may as well just stop rolling the dice entirely and adopt attitude 2, above. (Which is fine, by the way.) On the other hand, if you actually want to leave what happens in the game up to the gods of randomness and fate, you really don't have any business meddling in the decisions of those gods and sullying the purity of the randomness, thereby destroying the suspense and excitement which playing a game provides.


Wednesday 24 February 2010

Let's Play Yoon-Suin

You know what? Fuck it. Would anyone like to play some Yoon-Suin Play-By-Chat?

Times: Tuesday or Wednesday nights, beginning 7-8pm-ish GMT (I know this probably makes it impossible for a lot of North Americans... sorry). I could possibly consider changing this to Sunday evenings though I'd prefer to keep them free. (In that wonderful Japanese phrase, I like to "prepare my heart" for the working week in front of me on Sunday nights.)
Place: MapTool (free RPG chat/irc thing). I don't like voice chat as it's just a jerky and awkward approximation of real life with none of the benefits.
Details: I'd like around 4 players (but will settle for less) who can commit to a once-a-week game, on the understanding that this is a playtest of some experimental new classes and rules - so experienced D&D players who can give feedback would be more than welcome. The system is essentially BECMI D&D with knobs and whistles. A liking for and appreciation of whatever Yoon-Suin stuff I've posted in the blog would be a plus. My games are sandboxy and player initiative is important. Yoon-Suin is mostly a giant slaying, rather than a goblin massacre, setting; aside from that the players can make it as dungeoncrawly or as hexcrawly or as politicky as they like, or anything in between - there's room for all of it.
Start Date: I'd like to have a character gen/setup session on the 10th or 11th of March.

If you're interested, send me an email. It's jean DOT delumeau AT gmail DOT com.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Changeling Pendragon

I've written about making a Pendragon-based Changeling: The Dreaming variant before, and it strikes me as a worthy project for after Yoon-Suin gets finished. (Work on Yoon-Suin is progressing, by the way. I hope to set up a playtest play-by-chat campaign at some point.)

Some preliminary thoughts:

  • Pendragon works because it restricts what starting players can be. This gives it focus. (Lack of focus is what makes D&D such a great game, but it is what made the original Changeling: The Dreaming so difficult to play. This is a reflection of the special nature of trad-fantasy games and D&D in particular, a point which Zak Smith makes very well here. D&D works when you have a lot of options because everybody shares a broad understanding of what it is; in Changeling having all those options and a free reign but no real direction made the thing a bitch to make an actual game out of.) Therefore, Changeling Pendragon should be about young fae (preferably sidhe) in the service of a noble house on the cusp of knighthood, and go from there. This makes the game manageable, taut, directed.
  • Pendragon's Traits map almost perfectly to the idea of the Seelie and Unseelie (and legacies) in Changeling. You would barely need to change the system at all. In fact the Pendragon system of Traits is probably a better fit for Changeling than the original rules.
  • The winter phase fits fine with Changeling's emphasis on the importance of seasons. Again, you would barely need to change the system at all.
  • Glamour, Willpower and Banality can all work using the Passions system as their basis.
  • The major problem is cantrips and magic, which don't really fit readily into a given Pendragon mechanic; indeed "magic is not the point of a Pendragon game". I'd be tempted to either a) just lift the Changeling system wholesale or b) adopt the Pendragon approach and basically make it an NPC ability.

I would also have to remove all the tedious references to "gothic-punk".

Monday 22 February 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday: Seas of Blood (VI)

Equal votes this time, for the upside-down triangle and horizontal crescent. Flip a coin... heads = crescent, crescent it is.

The door opens to reveal an almost impenetrable darkness - almost, for you can make out the barely defined shapes of two large eyes considering you with carniverous rage. You back off, as a truly gigantic beast pulls itself through the doorway and into the pit. Horns sprout from its wide head, down its scaly back and on to its tail. It growls. Will youattack the creature (turn to 399), or attempt some alternative evasive action (turn to 93)?

Hmm, I smell something fishy...

Log: 13 Days
Gold: 63
Slaves: 1
Crew Strength: 15
Stamina: 17

Law vs. Chaos, versus Good vs. Evil

Law vs. Chaos is an interesting concept - it reflects something about the nature of the universe which the Good vs. Evil dynamic doesn't, in my opinion. Good and Evil may or may not exist, depending on your worldview, but there's nothing particularly profound about the opposition between the two; it's essentially QED. Law vs. Chaos, on the other hand, hits on something deep and true about the lives of human beings.

That is, our lives as we live them are to all intents and purposes governed by Chaos. In the naivest terms, we never know, when we get up in the morning, what is going to happen that day; in the more complex sense, the world is governed by a multitude of random factors and quasi random factors (like the weather, which may not strictly be random because there is some method behind the system even if it is beyond our ken, but which is random in the only sense that matters - we can't really predict it) which make it impossible for us to adequately understand as a whole. This is true for the most banal situations (my train may be late tomorrow but I can never know in advance, and if nobody tells me why, it may as well have been because somebody rolled a dice and decided it should be so); it's also true for the most important ones (the economy, your own physical and mental health, earthquakes; we don't know why earthquakes happen when they do and we don't know why one smoker will develop lung cancer where another doesn't, so the reason may as well be randomness).

But the universe itself is a profoundly Lawful place; indeed it is the very essense of Lawfulness - this is why we talk about The Laws of Physics when we discuss the fundamental nature of things. Again, this is true in both very banal and very important senses. If I drop an apple and there is nothing to stop it, it will fall to the floor. If you add two to two you will get four. If you mix sodium and water you will get an explosion.

This dynamic - the interplay between Law and Chaos, Predictability and Randomness, Known and Unknown - also has more interesting philosophical dimensions than Good vs. Evil, because Law and Chaos are both neutral propositions. It doesn't make sense to say that Chaos is Bad, just because a sudden snowstorm delays your flight and makes you late for a meeting, because next year a sudden snowstorm might delay your flight and lead you to meet the love of your life. Similarly, it wouldn't make sense to curse the laws of physics and call them bad if somebody dropped an anvil from a sixth floor window onto your head - Damn you, Gravity! - because the laws of physics, indirectly, might be what save your life; knowing about them is what allowed human beings to construct the combustion engine and thus the ambulance that takes you to the hospital.

The idea that there might be Gods of Chaos and Gods of Law and that they are locked in conflict therefore doesn't strike me as a preposterous notion - it makes sense in my gut, because it reflects the nature of life as we know it. (To make it clear, I don't actually believe it to be the case; just, if somebody told me that people in Timbuktu did, I wouldn't find it counterintuitive.) There is such a thing as Law and there is such a thing as Chaos and they interact in all manner of ways, and it is a short step from there to the preposition that they are in dynamic conflict.

Good vs. Evil is a different kettle of fish. We know that we like Good better than Evil. More importantly, we also know that Evil is always what the other person is doing. I'm of the opinion that, objectively, some acts are Evil, but the perpetrators of those acts never think in those terms. The Final Solution didn't come about because the Nazis wanted to be Evil. It came about because the Nazis thought that Jewish people were Evil. The act itself was an Evil one, but it didn't arise from any diametric conflict between two fundamentally opposed philosophical schools - it wasn't about the Nazis fighting for the cause of Evil against Good. In their own twisted logic it was the opposite.

The idea of an explicit Good vs. Evil conflict in the world, then - that there are Gods of Good and Gods of Evil and that they battle for the cosmos - seems fundamentally ridiculous and unbelievable in a sense that Law vs. Chaos doesn't. Because what God, and what follower of a God, would explicitly campaign for the cause of "Evil"? It makes no sense; it's artificial; if you think about it for even a second it just doesn't seem like anything approaching a fit for how the world works and what motivates people.

Now, I can sense some of you forming an argument in your mind that goes something like this: "Good and Evil can still exist even if they don't have explicit proponents. Maybe Sauron doesn't believe he's Evil and thinks he's Good; that doesn't preclude the existence of Evil and a conflict between it and Good - Sauron is just mistaken." You're right of course. But I think you'll recognise my fundamental point, which is that followers of Law and Chaos (if they existed) would be able to announce, outright, that they are a Follower of Law or a Follower of Chaos in a way that makes sense, whereas nobody no matter how steeped in sin would ever be able to openly claim themselves a Follower of Evil and be believable as a person. This in my opinion makes Good vs. Evil a weak and artificial conflict of forces for a fantasy cosmology, and Law vs. Chaos a compelling and believable one.

Friday 19 February 2010

Five Spells

Five forge inspired BECMI spells:

Oil King (Level 2)
Range: 60'
Duration: Concentration
Effect: Manipulation of oil

This spell allows the caster to control oils and greases in two ways: firstly, by animating them into a movable form which can cover surfaces and slip through cracks and under doorways; and secondly by causing them to ignite. Any oil within 60' of the caster (including that in containers) can be manipulated in this way.

Whisper Throne (Level 1)
Range: 240'
Duration: 2d4 turns
Effect: Distracts 2-16 HD of creatures within a 40' square area

This spell causes its victims to be surrounded by a host of phantasmal whispers making promises and threats, playing on fears, and attacking insecurities - often in the voices of people the creature used to know but have since died. To be effective, the victim must have a spoken language and have HD of 4+1 or less. There is no saving throw.

Whisper Throne prevents the victim from casting spells; all missile attacks suffer a -4 to hit penalty and hand-to-hand attacks -2; movement is at half-rate.

Azure Purity (Level 6)
Range: 30'
Duration: Instant
Effect: Eliminates 4d8 HD of undead, devils and demons in a 30' cone extending from the caster

This spell creates a cone of clear blue purity extending from the caster to 30'; this blast destroys 4d8 HD of undead beings, devils and demons within that range (lowest Hit Dice creatures being affected first), but leaves all else unaffected.

Ubara's Scalding Palm (Level 1)
Range: Touch
Duration: 2 turns
Effect: Generates intense heat in the palm of the caster's hand

This spell causes powerful white hot energy to course through the caster's left palm, allowing him to burn anything he presses his hand to. The scalding palm causes 1d6 of damage per round if clasped against flesh (requires a successful to hit roll if the target can move freely). Originally created as a method of torture by the archmage Ubara, the scalding palm has other more practical uses; for instance a mage casting the spell can use it to
burn his hand through a wooden door within 1 turn.

Misshapen Moth (Level 5)
Range: 240'
Duration: Concentration
Effect: Summons one Misshapen Moth

Misshapen Moths are beings from another plane of existence: fat-bodied insectoid winged things with faces like birds, apes, reptiles or even humans
(AC 1, HD14, Move 90', Fly 240', Attacks: 1 bite [2d8 damage, energy drain as Wight]). These horrid, unintelligent creatures drain the life force of their victims, who once dead return to unlife as pale zombie-like thralls after 4 days.

This spell allows the caster to summon a Misshapen Moth to do his bidding; the thralls the Moth creates will then serve the caster until their bodies rot (4 weeks). Thralls are treated as zombies.

Thursday 18 February 2010

Uniqueizing Your Campaign

Random Name Generators like the Forge are a very underused resource when it comes to giving a unique flavour to a campaign. I'm not talking about randomly generated names of places and NPCs, which I suppose are the most obvious usages but also the least interesting. No, I'm talking about the things which for some reason most DMs seem to see as sacrosanct - names of spells and monsters.

I'm not even talking about using a random name generator to create entirely new spells and creatures (which is a worthwhile though time consuming pursuit; I just generated the spell name Nassim's Monstrous Drinker, which if I had the time I would write up right here and now). I'm just talking about putting a spin on the tired old standards. I mean, how much more interesting would it be if, instead of discovering a spellbook containing boring old Magic Missile, your mage PC instead found something called Shatter Enemy, Ayz's Silt Flame, or the unbeatable Rage Sadism? The effect changes not a jot - Rage Sadism would be just Magic Missile masquerading under a cooler name - but the feel and flavour is totally different.

Similarly, imagine a campaign in which goblins are not called goblins, but "Obsidian Monkeys", trolls are "Frozen Minotaurs", orcs are "Rash Ghouls" and worgs are "Crystal Howler Locusts". Suddenly the flavour is totally different, and you haven't even had to change a single stat; all you've done is filed off the name and replaced it with another. There is no easier and lazier way of coming up with something different.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Hack and Slash vs. Titanic Struggles, or the Goblin Massacre and Giant Slaying Approaches

Today, I'll be looking at two philosophical positions on encounter design, which I term the Goblin Massacre and Giant Slaying approaches.

Because of its default assumptions (low level characters are extremely weak in comparative terms to single powerful monsters in the bestiaries) D&D leans towards hack and slash when it comes to combat - by which I mean, encounters tend to revolve around face-offs between a group of adventurers and a group of monsters roughly equal (or a bit lower or a bit higher) to their power level. At level 1 this means things like goblins, bandits, and giant rats; at level 2 orcs and hobgoblins; and so on. A group of four level 1 adventurers simply don't have much of a hope of taking on something like a troll, let alone a giant or a dragon. This tends to result in relatively frequent fights resulting in rather large numbers of deaths of low level humanoids - in other words, the Goblin Massacre approach, where your four adventurers encounter eight goblins, kill them all, heal up, and proceed. You're all familiar with the sheer number of mook enemies that a D&D adventuring party can get through over the course of levels 1-4 alone, I'm sure, especially if the DM is not particularly imaginative or the game is very combat-heavy.

While at higher levels this should in theory become less of an issue, in my experience the fact that lower levels (the equivalent of the game's formative years) are so dominated by this mode of play means that even at levels 9+ encounters still tend to follow the Goblin Massacre paradigm, except with creatures like vrocks, slaadi and ogre magi taking over the mook duties. Single, powerful enemies tend to be reserved for "boss fights" only.

The other extreme is something that's rarely seen in D&D (and, consequently, in other games too - more on that below) - namely, the Giant Slaying approach. This takes an opposite tack to Goblin Massacre, revolving around infrequent encounters with large, powerful, and possibly unique enemies right from the beginning. In this paradigm, monsters would start off at the level of trolls and progress from there; they would be mighty and perhaps near-legendary beings who only true heroes could possibly hope to defeat in a fight: Fafnir, Gog and Magog, Grendel, Glaurung, the Green Knight. Giant Slaying adventures would involve much in the way of tracking, exploring and inconclusive battle, and comparatively little in the way of slaughter.

In fairness, I think the D&D 4e designers were attempting to allow for this type of play when they beefed up the power levels of first level characters. (Indeed I remember an Actual Play report somewhere on talking about a group of first level characters killing a young white dragon.) They didn't achieve this in anything approaching a way that I would like - D&D 4e is very anime- and superhero comic-blasted, rather than mythic in tone. But the difference between it and older editions of D&D is marked in this respect.

Now, there is nothing wrong with Goblin Massacre, and in fact I would argue that it is what D&D is really a best fit for - its roots are Sword & Sorcery, and you get a heck of a lot of Goblin Massacre in Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and Elric. Why change it? The problem is that D&D has been such a dominant force in the hobby for so long, as the gateway drug, that I believe it has skewed fantasy gaming in general away from Giant Slaying and towards Goblin Massacre to an extent which isn't perhaps all that healthy. The other big fantasy games that I can think of (MERP, WFRP, Earthdawn, RuneQuest) all follow the Goblin Massacre, start-low-and-kill-lots-of-mooks pattern.

I rather like Giant Slaying (perhaps I was unduly influenced by Shadow of the Colossus), and would gladly partake in that sort of game. Short of generic systems (or just high-level D&D), however, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of options.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday (Except on Tuesday Again): Seas of Blood (IV)

Deception won out. So off we go.

You drop anchor in a sheltered cove of the island, disembark and travel to the temple-fortress of the warrior priests with only a few crew as companions. When you near your destination, but before you are in sight, you instruct your companions to wait in cover for your return and then proceed to the main gate alone.

Posing as an emissary from the city of Lagash, you gain entrance and then audience with the abbot. 'O great abbot of illustrious Asswr sel Dablo, keeper of truth and wisdom in the northern lands, I bring you greetings and news from an esteemed friend,' you say.

'You are too kind. Sit, have tea, then speak of the news,' he replies. You do as he says. After a suitably polite time has passed, you say, 'I have heard that there is to be an assault on your citadel by the Wazi of Lagash, whose masters are pressing him for increased revenue. I have
powerful friends, O master, and - for a suitable fee - could cause the attack to be misdirected.' You bow.

The abbot sighs, then whispers to his attendant monk, 'An opportunist.' He presses a carbuncle on his chair: the floor around you falls away and drops you into a deep, open pit-lose 2 points of STAMINA.

'Foolhardy pirate,' laughs the abbot, looking down from the edge of the pit. 'You must meet your destiny through one of these.' He points at four doors, one in each of the four walls of the pit. Each door has a different symbol carved into it. Which will you open:
The door with a star-burst carved in it? Turn to 380
The door with an upside-down triangle? Turn to 327
The door with a wheel? Turn to 297
The door with a horizontal crescent? Turn to 249

(Is this an abbey or a Bond villain's lair? Anyway, which door?)

Log: 13 Days
Gold: 63
Slaves: 1
Crew Strength: 15
Stamina: 17

Monday 15 February 2010

Random Generation Baby

From the ether (well, from the Core Mechanic) a new way to waste time and procrastinate emerges.

Yes, it's a Fantasy Name Generator, with an impressive degree of fucking-around-with-ability, for generic names, beasts, spells and locations. The names it generates are cheesy, but none the worse for it. Check out these examples:


Broad Fall
White Tribe
Tear Fountain
Plague Orb


River Drown Virus
Gnaw Grass
Drip Panther
Basker Beetle


Whishan's Winged Instinct
Narissa's Dream Arsenal
Llethra's Ghost Book
Q's Locking Hope


Basement of Iron
Ooze Void
Ruin of Crystal
Basker Lair

My favourites are the Plague Orb, River Drown Virus, Narissa's Dream Arsenal and Ooze Void.

Ghoul-Channeling Rabbits of East Sussex

One of those "you couldn't make it up" articles in Metro today. (Metro is a free newspaper that gets handed out to morning commuters in the UK, with regional editions for each locality. For the rest of the day discarded copies then lie scattered across the seats of trains and buses like hastily abandoned corpses after mob hits gone wrong.)

Meet Ralph – a monster bunny which weighs as much as an average three-year-old child, and became so big that TV 'medium' Derek Acorah wanted to check him out.

Acorah, star of Most Haunted, felt Ralph was behind the spooky goings-on in the family home.

‘We are pretty sure our house is haunted by something or other, so Ralph went up to London with friends of ours to meet Derek Acorah,’ said owner Pauline Grant. ‘They said it was pretty spooky and he had a good old chat with Ralph about the spirits in our house.

‘He seemed to think Ralph was channelling the spirit of a ghoul. It sounds like a load of old nonsense but Ralph isn’t your average rabbit,’ she added.

If you're a DM and you can't find inspiration in this for an adventure hook I don't know what's wrong with you.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Four Pillars of a Genuine Big Bad Evil Guy

I'm not a huge fan of uber-powerful supervillains. You don't really need a bellowing voice, a throng of minions, blazing red eyes, an eight-foot tall frame and a spooky black costume to be a truly nasty Big Bad Evil Guy. The key elements are rather:

Sheer Malice

"I am the Elder King: Melkor, first and mightiest of all the Valar, who was before the world, and made it. The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda, and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will.

But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death."

- Morgoth, to Hurin, from "Narn i Hîn Húrin", Unfinished Tales


Upon that ship which was cast highest and stood dry upon a hill there was a man, or one in man's shape, but greater than any even of the race of Númenor in stature.

He stood upon the rock and said: "This is done as a sign of power. For I am Sauron the mighty, servant of the Strong" (wherein he spoke darkly). "I have come. Be glad, men of Númenor, for I will take thy king to be my king, and the world shall be given into his hand."

- From "The Fall of Numenor", The Lost Road


"[Sauron's] cunning motive is probably best expressed thus. To wean one of the God-fearing from their allegiance it is best to propound another unseen object of allegiance and another hope of benefits; propound to him a Lord who will sanction what he desires and not forbid it. Sauron, apparently a defeated rival for world-power, now a mere hostage, can hardly propound himself; but as the former servant and disciple of Melkor, the worship of Melkor will raise him from hostage to high priest."

- J. R. R. Tolkien, Morgoth's Ring


6 One day the angels came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them. 7 The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?"

Satan answered the LORD, "From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it."

- Job 1:6, 7, NIV

The rest is just razzmatazz.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday (Except on Tuesday): Seas of Blood (V)

Slight delay with Fighting Fantasy Monday this week; apologies for that. Last week raiding the isle of Enraki was by far the most popular choice, so off we go. Avast there, me hearties, etc.

The Banshee sails out into the Inland Sea. Roll three dice. If the result is less than your CREW STRENGTH, add 4 days to your LOG. If the result is equal to or
greater than your CREW STRENGTH, add 5 days to your LOG. Presently, you arrive off the northern-most tip of the mountainous isle of Enraki, home of the warrior priests of Asswr sel Dablo. These fearsome holy men, armed by the gods of war and
protected by the gods of stone, reside in a fortress raised on the lower slopes of the island's precipitous central snow-capped mountain. They are very rich.
You have three options to deprive them of this wealth:

A direct assault on the fortress: Turn to 231
Gaining entry to the fortress via a deception of some kind, then pilfering what you can: Turn to 315
Finding a way over the mountains behind the castle so as to assault the (most probably) lightly defended rear: Turn to 188

Log: 13 days
Gold: 63
Slaves: 1
Crew Strength: 15

Thursday 4 February 2010

Social Archaeology

I was thinking earlier today about the games of D&D my friends and I used to play "back in the day" (perhaps partly inspired by Brian's post about Neo-Classical gaming and social archaeology). Now that I look back in detail on that era, trying to remember as many things as I can about it, it occurs to me that there were quite a lot of characteristics of our games that just didn't fit with a lot of what I read about in blogs and forums when people start talking about actual play. This shouldn't be surprising - just as people from one small village in a valley in the Caucasus mountains speak a different language to those in the next, purely because of geographical isolation, so insular gaming groups will undoubtedly develop their own little "dialects" of play. Here are some examples:
  • Our games tended not to revolve around one character per player. In fact, that was something of a rarity. I think this may have been because in those days we spent just as much, if not more time, playing games like Blood Bowl, Necromunda and Warhammer Quest, and so we were used to identifying with little gangs or teams of adventurers rather than individuals. We would often have three or four characters each in our campaigns, which could get hectic when you had four or five players.
  • As a consequence of the above, there was quite a high level of abstraction between player and character in our games. We never did voices or spoke in character - everything took place in the third person. ("Bill attacks the orc", "Siegfried says 'I'll kill you!'".) And we tended not to care much about character death. If anything we behaved like rather dispassionate Gods watching a Greek tragedy unfold than active controllers of personal avatars.
  • Perhaps as another consequence of the above, our characters used to kill each other quite a lot. Not as often as they cooperated, mind, but backstabbing, doing-down and even outright hostility was par for the course. We were adolescent boys, which certainly also helped fuel this.
  • We loved plotting things out on maps. In fact in my memory we sometimes devoted entire gaming sessions to working out routes from city x to mountain y, and cooperatively drawing up random encounter tables of the creatures which one might likely find on the way, weather generators for the journey, major wandering NPCs whose path one might just cross, roadside locations, and possible points at which a traveller might become lost.
  • There were certain eccentric minutiae in the DMG which we loved and incorporated wholesale, even while ignoring whole strands of what you might call 'major' rules. For example, the AD&D 2nd edition DMG has an entire set of random generators to determine the personality, quality and character of a horse. We used this obsessively with every single horse that ever appeared in our games. And yet we never bothered with something as simple and basic as encumbrance.
  • We had a rule that you weren't allowed to be an elf.
Really, our D&D was very wargame-y (
In fact, gaming sessions fairly often ended up descending into reasonably large-scale skirmish warfare, with maybe 50 individuals on each side), which makes me think that perhaps it wasn't all that far removed to how the early evolutionary games must have been.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Kids These Days

Nice post by Odyssey about the problems associated with finding a way to "appeal to the masses of tweeting, texting, facebooking teens who barely have time to sit still to eat breakfast let alone play a 4 hour game of D&D on a regular basis".

She's right on the money; all I'd add is that I personally hate the perception of the world which says that in order to appeal to young people, a hobby or pastime has to embrace new technology. At 28 I still like to think of myself as at least reasonably young, but even when I was properly young (14-24, say), almost none of the things I enjoyed doing - going clubbing, drinking, hanging out with friends, playing Warhammer, playing football, playing cricket - had anything whatsoever to do with technology. The sole exception was playing computer games.

Radical concept: like old people, middle-aged people, or indeed any sort of people, young people like to partake in pastimes that are enjoyable. Technology sometimes plays a part in that and more often it does not, but it is essentially irrelevant. A percentage of kids, probably a small minority, will always be both imaginative and nerdish enough to get a kick out of D&D, and whether twitter and facebook are involved won't make the blindest bit of difference.

It's my opinion that the whole "we need to make D&D high-tech to appeal to young people!" argument is actually indicative of a genuine problem in Western society; namely that adults these days seem to have lost all confidence to engage with youngsters. Young people have always been seen as different, alien and unpredictable, but the extent to which this applies today is astonishing. It is almost as if the population above 30 believes "young people" to be a different species. They aren't. Kids have always been kids, just like we were, and what is or isn't fun never changes.

Fighting Fantasy Monday: Seas of Blood (IV)

The votes for being patient pirates won out last round. Let's see if good things come to those who wait.

After just one day, a caravan of enormous ochre-coloured octopedal beasts shambles over a ridge and into sight. The heavy pack-animals are guarded by a dozen Lizard Men who, high in their wooden saddles, survey the surroundings with some suspicion. Keeping your men out of sight, you allow the convoy to approach within striking range, then launch the attack. As your crew surge out, uttering their war cry, the Lizard Men calmly draw long composite bows and let fly; the three-foot arrows cut a swath through your force. Deduct 2 points from your CREW STRENGTH. Eventually, hand-to-hand combat begins.


If your crew defeat the guards, add 1 day to your
LOG and then turn to 329.

After a short sharp fight the lizardmen are dead at the feet of our pirate crew, who suffered no casualties save the two men killed by three-foot arrows. Let's find out what bounty awaits.

With the guards overcome, you and your crew loot the caravan - stripping boxes, sacks and skins of wine from the great pack-beasts. The amount of booty, however, is not large. You find 63 Gold Pieces in a small chest and only 1 of the surviving Lizard Men is in fit enough condition to be traded as a slave. A little disappointed, you gather up your
now drunken crew and return to the Banshee. Turn to 35.

So there's your answer. Good things really don't come to those who wait.

Returning to the Banshee, you weigh anchor and set off out to sea. If your crew have taken casualties, you could head for the neutral city of Assur to recruit some more men (turn to 171). Alternatively, you could go to the neighbouring city of Calah to try your luck in the gambling-pits (turn to 211), or sail east to raid the isle of Enraki (turn to 76).

Decisions, decisions. 171, 211 or 76?

Log: 9 days
Gold: 63
Slaves: 1
Crew Strength: 15

Monday 1 February 2010

Narn i Hîn Húrin and D&D vs Tolkien

I bought Unfinished Tales, Christopher Tolkien's first "History of Middle Earth" books (though not one of the actual History of Middle of Earth series), to read on the flight back to England. I'm about half way through, and what else is there to say except that my admiration for J. R. R. Tolkien's work has advanced to an entirely new level. The stories in the book are as unfinished as the name suggests but that doesn't detract from their sheer weight and majesty; the incomplete and fragmentary version of the Narn i Hîn Húrin (Tale of the Children of Hurin) contains moments of staggering beauty and power - it should put to bed forever the ridiculous argument that Tolkien was not a great prose stylist. Like the argument that H. P. Lovecraft was not a great prose stylist, it stems from a complete inability to recognise when writing, while not sounding contemporarily fashionable, is perfectly achieving, in tone and rhythm, what it sets out to achieve. Tolkien set out to write myth, and the writing style he used is faultless for realizing that goal.

What interests me about the
Narn i Hîn Húrin vis-a-vis the raison d'etre of this blog (if you'll pardon my French) is that while it reads just like the best works of medieval literature (it could have been written by the same forgotten Icelandic genius who penned Egil's Saga) it also kind of reads like an Actual Play report on a solo campaign of D&D. Turin Turambar slays orcs, has random encounters with wandering petty-dwarves, delves in ancient dungeons, hangs out with outlaws, kills dragons, and has the kind of rambling adventures that tend to happen when two humans are interacting, rather than those that occur in a tautly plotted novel. He even has a 9th-level plus style endgame, in which he settles down and becomes a ruler, although of course that all goes horribly wrong in the end.

This makes me think again about MERP, and the whole idea of the suitability of Middle Earth for setting a "traditional" style game. There is a school of thought, I know, which will argue that the kind of games I like - sandboxy, unplotted, random - don't really fit with with Tolkien's vision, which requires a more narrativist and larger-than-life mode of play. (A game for heroes as opposed to rogues, let's say.) Games in Middle Earth, the theory goes, are not suitable for the chaotic, amoral, player-choice based, random sort of game that "old school" play is supposedly all about. The
Narn i Hîn Húrin should serve as a rejoinder to that. Especially during its more anarchic periods, Middle Earth is just about perfect for a sandbox game; it has ancient ruins to explore and ancient treasures to find, politics by the bucketload to get involved in one way or the other, and miles of mapped and catalogued wilderness to adventure in. And it certainly doesn't require its PCs to be goody-two-shoes'; Turin is defined mostly by his tendency towards violence and self-destruction, not by his heroism.

D&D has never been a great bedfellow for Tolkien, but I would argue that is more to do with mechanics than it is to do with philosophy. The ease with which magic can be manipulated in even OD&D, and the abstraction of its combat, just don't fit the gritty and almost low-fantasy vibe of Middle Earth. That's a problem, but the tonal/philosophical dichotomy between dirty Sword & Sorcery roguelike D&D on the one hand and heroic High Fantasy Tolkien on the other seems, on a reading of works like the Narn i Hîn Húrin and The Silmarillion, and actually even The Hobbit, decidedly off-base.