Wednesday 19 January 2011

[Inspirational Pictures V] Bish Bash Bosch

For works that are in the public domain and useful for flavour art, you could do a lot worse than Hieronymus Bosch:

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Medelpad Chestnuts

The forest of Medelpad is famous for its chestnut trees. In one remote, hidden grove deep within it, there is a stand of these trees which appears to have magical properties. Various explanations for this phenomenon exist: some say a god died there long ago and the trees' roots burrow down to his vast corpse; others attribute it to faeries; others say the trees themselves contain the souls of dead sorcerers and witches. Some nuts from the trees of this grove have beneficial effects when eaten, while some are damaging; most have no effect at all.

Medelpad Chestnuts

Within the forest of Medelpad during autumn there are usually hundreds of chestnuts freely available, either on the ground or in the trees; however, it is only within the secret grove itself that they are imbued with magic. Even there, only 1 in 12 are special in any way (roll 1d12 to determine whether a given nut is magical; at the height of autumn 10d100 nuts can be gathered in the grove, while in winter 3d100 can be gathered, in spring 1d100, and in summer 1d20). Detect Magic spells work as usual, though an Identify spell is required to know the nature of the effect of eating a specific nut.

A magical chestnut will have one of the following properties (roll a d100; for caster level, assume level 3; effects only act on the eater):

01 - Increases a random stat by +1, permanently
02-05 - Allows the eater to levitate at will for one week
06-10 - Acts as a neutralise poison spell
11-15 - Acts as a lasting breath spell
16-20 - Makes the eater immune to paralysing attacks and spell effects for one week
21-25 - Allows the eater to detect evil at will for one week
26-30 - Makes the eater invisible to animals for one day
31-35 - Makes the eater invisible to undead for one day
36-40 - Acts as a protection from evil spell
41-45 - Acts as an augury spell
46-50 - Acts as a speak with animals spell
51-55 - Acts as a cure blindness spell
56-60 - Acts as a cure disease spell
61-70 - Acts as an insatiable thirst spell
71-75 - Acts as a speak with the dead spell
76-80 - Acts as a call woodland beings spell
81-95 - Acts as a goodberry
96-98 - Allows the eater to commune with nature three times a day for a week
99 - Acts as a cause critical wounds spell
00 - Acts as a power word: kill spell

Saturday 15 January 2011

The Undead Pigs of Andong

(Inspired by this news story.)

The hills and forests of Andong, it is said, were once a tranquil and beautiful wilderness, famous for its many varieties of orchid and the peculiar clarity of its light. Now it is a dark and desolate region, where the trees are tough and blackened and no flowers can grow. This is all due to the depridations of what the locals call the Dwaeji - roaming packs of black-eyed and grey-skinned pigs which devour any living thing they can find: plant, animal, or human.

Legend has it that an ancient king of Andong ordered twelve thousand of his people's pigs to be buried alive to stop the spread of an uncontrollable sickness across the land. These swine died the most painful and terrifying of deaths, but their souls were unable to rise from their bodies through the earth which covered them. Over the centuries they became progressively more enraged, hateful and insane, so that when finally they were dug free by unsuspecting farmers they spread across the land, motivated by their fury and malice, destroying anything that was alive in incoherent spite.

Dwaeji, Undead Pig of Andong

Armour Class: 5
Hit Dice: 2*
Move: 180'
Attacks: 1 bite
Damage: d6+2
No. App: 20-200 (20d10)
Save As: F2
Morale: N/A
Treasure: None
Intelligence: 1
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 55
Type: Undead, uncommon

Dwaeji enter a killing frenzy if they encounter anything alive, and will attack it relentlessly until destroyed. They never check for morale.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Pointless and Unacceptable Levels of Pretension

Broadly, you can divide Western thinkers since the Enlightenment into two categories - the top-down gang (who wish to transform and manage society from the centre, or top, on down) and the bottom-up brigade (who believe in very slow, unconscious and incremental social change, if at all). I prefer to call them "wrong" and the "right", respectively, but your mileage may vary. Anyway, you can also place roleplaying games into those categories, thusly - the idea being that one approach is to the attempt to legislate "from the top" (the rulebook) while the other is a small-state laissez-faire methodology which lets DMs and players come to their own conclusions when playing the game, within a very bare framework of rules:

Top-down gang

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Karl Marx
Sydney & Beatrice Webb
Georges Sorel
D&D 3rd Edition
WHFRP 3rd Edition
GURPS (any edition)

Bottom-up brigade

Edmund Burke
Friedrich Hayek
Karl Popper
George Orwell
Tunnels & Trolls

Interestingly, though these two categories can be mapped somewhat accurately to terms like "new school" and "old school" respectively, there isn't neccessarily a perfect correlation. Rolemaster is definitely a top-downer, for instance, while Blood & Honour is very much a bottom-upper. Also, while I consider myself a member of the bottom-up brigade (the more I write that phrase, the more it sounds like a homophobic euphemism of some kind...) there are some such games I dislike (The Window, Old World of Darkness) and some top-downers I enjoy (Rolemaster). Which just goes to show something, though I'm not sure what.

Perhaps this post is just a roundabout way of saying some games are rules-lite and some are not, but where would the fun be in simply stating that?

Tuesday 11 January 2011

My Mind Ghouls Wanna Get Fed

Curse of the Mind Ghouls

4th Level Clerical Spell
Range: Touch
Duration: Permanent
Effect: Cannibalistic insanity

This hex, when cast, causes the victim to believe his own mind to be possessed by cannibal ghosts that crave to be fed. Unless his will and resolve are exceptionally strong, sooner or later he will find himself unable to stave off the urge to devour human flesh.

On being stricken by the curse of the mind ghouls, the victim begins to hear voices within his head begging, pleading, demanding, and urging to be fed. Their clamouring is constant and uncontrollable; it does not stop even during sleep. Each day the cursed individual must successfully save versus death. A failed save means that his resolve has been broken by the sheer obstinacy of his mind ghouls, and he will attempt to kill and eat the first human he sees.

The curse of the mind ghouls only affects humans. It can be cured only by a wish or remove curse spell.

All Zombies on the Eastern Front [Session 3] - Or, how fear of a monster is often worse than the monster itself

Yesterday we played some more All Zombies..., and it was another good session. You know you've got the tone of gritty survival horror right when your players are celebrating the discovery of six duck eggs hidden in a patch of reeds by a pond.

Less violent than previous sessions (there was only one combat encounter, though quite a big one), this one was all about the harshness of trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic Siberian wilderness: endurance saves against the cold and starvation; constant delays so as to undertake foraging and hunting for food; and taking pleasure in small mercies (like the aforementioned duck eggs). Even the few inhabitants of this place are hostile - invited to share the food and shelter of a mysterious cult of Old Believers, the players found themselves drugged by stew (made of human flesh) in order to be quietly murdered and eaten later. They were saved only by the fact that one of the players was sensible enough not to actually eat the stuff.

It was also the first session in which no zombies have appeared or been encountered. This has had a noticeable effect on the mindset of the players - the more rumours they hear about the things the more their suspicions and fears seem to grow, so that they're now far more keen to avoid zombies than the danger actually warrants (in terms of the mechanics). Indeed, encounters with shotgun or rifle wielding bandits have far more potential to result in death than would a zombie sighting at distance, yet the players are remarkably more sanguine about the former than the latter.

Less is more, and all that, but it doesn't hurt to remind onself as a DM that this is very much a truism.

Sunday 9 January 2011

The Cannibal Elves of Byrkije

In the deep, fecund pine forests of Byrkije live a race of elves known to the surrounding peoples as the Feeders. Graceful, beautiful and strong, and possessing magical and eldricht knowledge beyond the ken of other peoples, they consider themselves superior in all respects. To them, humans are but another prey species as worthy as a fish or deer, fit only for butchering and consumption. The raw, succulent flesh of human children is especially prized, particularly if it is freshly killed; this meat is thinly sliced, sashimi-like, and the blood sucked from it with great delight. The best carvers attract visitors from leagues around, and often arrange special meat-hunting raids from the dark Byrkije forests into human lands.

The elves of Byrkije worship their ancestors, who inhabit the forest even after death. These pale, ethereal elf ghosts are strongest on cold winter days when the sun barely floats beyond the horizon; at such times they throng the dark, misty hollows deep within the woods. Though incapable of interacting with the world of the living in any physical sense, they are quick to alert their brethren to the presence of prey. Wanderers who find themselves lost in Byrkije often find themselves surrounding by these ghosts, who howl and shriek like gargoyles to direct their descendants to the location of the kill. Many a poor woodsman or lost child has died with the cries of the elf ghosts still echoing through the trees about him.

Elf of Byrkije

Very thin, tall and pale, but possessing a horrid strength, an elf of Bykije is an unforgettable sight. Their eyes are the lightest blue like the colour of a glacier; their hair is white; their teeth are fanged. During the hunt they sing mournful-sounding ditties to draw out the terror of their prey.

Elves of Byrkije hunting groups typically contain D3 wokani, who they call sorcerers. Their level is typically W4.

Armour Class: 4
Hit Dice: 4
Move: 120'
Attacks: 1 weapon (usually spear, sword, or axe)
Damage: As weapon, +2
No. App: Hunting group of 6-24 (6d4)
Save As: F4
Morale: 12
Treasure: V
Intelligence: 14
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 75
Type: Humanoid, Uncommon

Ancestral Elf Ghost of Byrkije

These white, near-translucent shades are completely ethereal and cannot interact with the physical world - though they can be destroyed by magical or cold iron weapons. On encountering a human or other sentient race they let up a loud, piercing shriek, which has a 10% chance per turn of raising the attention of a nearby hunting band. They will give chase until their prey are dead or have managed to escape Byrkije.

Armour Class: 5
Hit Dice: 4*
Move: 120'
Attacks: None
Damage: None
No. App: 3-18
Save As: F4
Morale: N/A
Treasure: None
Intelligence: 14
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 125
Type: Undead, uncommon

Saturday 8 January 2011

List of Places Zombies Can Be Encountered

List of locations/scenarios in which I've put zombies, or intend to:
  • In a signal box by a railway junction.
  • In a church - zombie priest and choirboys.
  • In the middle of a frozen lake.
  • Submerged in the water underneath the ice on a frozen river or lake.
  • Zombie DJ at the top of a radio tower.
  • Mineworkers in an abandoned mine.
  • Zombie stewardesses at the airport.
  • Zombie zoo animals running amok.
  • Zombie dwarves at an abandoned circus.

Friday 7 January 2011

The Exploration Game

One type of adventure that role playing games don't really do well - in my opinion - is straight-up exploration. In my experience players are too goal-oriented (naturally enough); they want to acquire stuff and glory, they want to complete missions/quests (self-set or given by outsiders) and they want to win battles. They don't just want to head out into the great beyond and see what's out there.

Possibly this is because, let's be frank, many campaign settings just aren't that unique, interesting or detailed. For exploration to be fun and rewarding there has to be a complex, enthralling and entertaining world out there to explore. Yet for every DM willing to put the huge amount of hours necessary in, there are twenty dozen who lack the imagination, time or both.

But also, it has to be said that many of the tasks which one must assume most explorers have to deal with the majority of the time (finding food, keeping warm, staving off disease) are pretty boring and almost entirely unrewarding. (There's only so many times you can roll a dice to see if you caught malaria before it gets old.)

The obvious way around this as far as I can see it is: random encounter tables. And not just of the "3d6 orcs" variety. A genuine random encounter table is more a grab-bag of events, happenings, rumours, vignettes and meetings than it is simple crossings-of-paths with monsters. In an exploration game I see the DM's role as primarily the creative force coming up with list after list after list of amusing and dangerous and interesting episodes, only some of which will ever be used and in entirely unexpected order.

Anyway, to get yourself in the mood for an exploration campaign, you can do worse than reading Hendrik Coetzee's blog. It's a beautifully written manifesto for the adventuring lifestyle - given extreme poignancy by the fact that the poor guy died only a few weeks after writing in his final entry that he'd "never lived a better day".

Thursday 6 January 2011

Science Fiction Illiteracy

There's been a bit of talk about Inception lately, on the film review show I regularly tune into, since it set out its "films of the year" list for 2010. Naturally Inception features highly on that list, and I think it would be hard to dispute that it was definitely one of the best films in a pretty forgettable year for cinema.

But what everybody - reviewers, fans calling in, and the film's participants - seems to talk about is something that I can't relate to at all; the supposed difficulty of following the plot. Now, I'll grant you that Inception has a more convoluted plot than most films. I guess if all you're used to watching is Marley and Me and Transformers 2, it might have been a minor shock to the system. But really, to anybody who has done any reading of Gibson, Zelazny, Wolfe or even Alastair Reynolds, it should present any sort of challenge at all - par for the course, really.

Though aye, there's the rub - ordinary cinema audiences and, perhaps more critically, supposedly well-educated intellectual film reviewers, are not science fiction literate. They aren't used to following a relatively complex plot while also keeping track of new information and concepts that require them to stretch their imagination in any way. When presented with something just a little bit mind-bending they find it very difficult to handle and they shut down into "Crikey, does not compute, pass the popcorn" mode.

It's at times like these that I find myself succumbing to the arrogance of the snobbish geek. Join me in wallowing in it.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

All Zombies on the Eastern Front [Session 2]

Session 2 of All Zombies... was a good few weeks ago now, so my recollections are a little dim, but I remember the broad details. Session 1 ended with the PCs (a group of escaped German, Italian, and Finnish POWs), after having roamed for a few days around a mostly deserted but somewhat zombie infested Siberian wilderness, commandeering a half track off an NKVD squad they ambushed. After a somewhat protracted discussion they agreed to head West back in the direction of their homelands, despite some (sensible, in my view) support for the idea of going East and ending up in Manchuria with the hope of catching a ship home.

These are seasoned players so, as they followed the Transiberian railway Westwards, they studiously avoided any of my attempts to lead them astray and into difficulties. I dangled a good few temptations their way - even a rumour of a crashed cargo plane with plenty of food on board - but they pushed on regardless in relatively pell-mell fashion, surviving a few encounters with roaming zombies and NKVD deserters. (They still aren't aware that the Soviets are pursuing a scorched earth policy and retreating both Eastwards and Westwards from the Tomsk area - the source of the plague - leaving any stragglers to their fate.)

Finally they made it to a river with a bridge, which they quickly assertained was being watched over by some of these NKVD stragglers, presumably in the hope of ambush. I listened with some amusement to their discussion of how best to proceed - they must have talked for about an hour; correctly, they've come to the conclusion that eventually they'll reach a blockade or firewall of some kind which the Red Army will have set up to contain the zombies, but incorrectly they seemed to believe for a while that this bridge constituted it. Eventually common sense prevailed and they realised any blockade would be considerably stronger and better fortified than this.

The result was a charge across the river via a nearby ford, in hell bent fashion, which resulted in a conclusive victory but the half track being pranged by a PTRD anti-tank rifle. This was a severe blow as it meant continuing on foot, which they did for the remainder minutes of the session - which lead them apparently towards the outskirts of a large settlement of some kind, though they're not sure what or where.

It was another fun session, though I have to confess I was a little frustrated by the gang's determination not to get sidetracked from their journey - I had a good few side scenarios lined up which will have to be scrapped now. They're unfortunately experienced enough to smell the DM's bait. But experience is a two-edged sword - it also means that they're willing to chip in with good house rule suggestions (using poker chips to represent amounts of calories when it comes to rations, etc.) and also ideas on armoured combat, which Cyberpunk 2020 apparently lacks detailed rules for but which became relevant when 14.5mm calibre weapons started being fired at half tracks.

Session 3 is this Sunday, so I'm in the planning stages now. I'm trying to decide whether a zombie woolly mammoth awakened from the permafrost is too gonzo or not...

Monday 3 January 2011

Role Playing in the PBEM Wargames Community and the Roots of the Hobby

Something I have a mild interest in, from an anthropological perspective, is the way in which people tend to naturally role play during any sort of game scenario. (By "people", I mean irrespective of whether they have any experience with role playing games or even know what they are.) You get it a lot with games like Diplomacy and Risk of course - people begin to take on airs and behave in a self-consciously "ruler"-ish sort of a way (usually with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks), or make threats to one another and talk with funny accents. I'm sure you've all experienced this.

But it also happens with games which are more abstract, like, say, Monopoly and even Snakes and Ladders - any sort of leisure pursuit, I suppose, which requires some level of investment in a character, counter, or other physical representation of some kind. (You can't really imagine it with a genuinely abstract game like Go, Backgammon or Poker...) Immediately the little toy iron or piece of plastic that acts as your avatar takes on a kind of personality of its own, and suddenly you feel as if you really are travelling around an early 20th Century London buying houses on Regent Street or climbing up a ladder to beat your spouse in a race to the prize.

Given the historical connections between role playing and wargaming, we shouldn't be surprised to discover that wargames elicit the urge to role play very readily. This is something I've noticed a lot of during my career as a Steel Panthers: World at War PBEM player. Not content to merely trade insults or commentary on battles as they develop, I've discovered that most opponents very readily engage in fantastical accounts in which they are a battalion commander on the Eastern Front (or wherever), communicating with their troops and often coming up with highly detailed and entertaining fictional After Action Reports of their encounters. In their email exchanges they pretend to be SS or NKVD officers issuing humorous, over-the-top commands to take no prisoners, or British majors twiddling moustaches and swilling port. The roots of our hobby are very clear in these exchanges; the gap between pretending to be a Red Army colonel advocating death for those who retreat, and between pretending to be a Red Army colonel on a secret mission with a close group of comrades is very small. The only thing separating the two is, in the end, scale and rules.

In light of this one begins to suspect that the development of role playing games was inevitable once wargames became popular. I'm reminded of that old saying that, given the achievements of Newton, Einstein and Da Vinci, you would choose the latter as more important, because somebody somewhere would have eventually made the discoveries of the former two whereas the latter's were by definition unique. In a similar way, though Gygax and Arneson et al have to be commended for their creations, somebody else in the wargaming community, given the nature of gaming in general and wargaming in particular, would likely have come up with them sooner or later. Though obviously in a very different form.

Sunday 2 January 2011

The Prodigal Son Returns

In keeping with the tradition of New Year's Lists, here's mine for 2010: The Top 5 Things that Stopped Me Blogging This Year.

  1. My PhD. It's my last year of funding and my third year of research: this creates a simple equation - Lf + Wy = Panic, where Lf is "last year of funding" and Wy is "writing-up year". Panic is perhaps slightly too strong a term, but I have basically about 10 months to finish off the damn thing and get on with my life.
  2. Work. I translate ordinances and acts into English for the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on a freelance basis, and autumn is for whatever reason the time of year when this sort of field gets busy. So since October I've been hunched over my computer looking up obscure Japanese terms and discovering they mean things like "zero coupon bond" and "share with put option", rather than, say, "3d6+4 damage" or "zombie beholder".
  3. Gaming. Seems strange to say, but regular gaming in "real life" has taken a lot of my energy away from writing about it. During this blog's heyday of 2008-2009, when I was writing an entry pretty much every day and often even more frequently, I wasn't gaming at all, and thus Monsters & Manuals was a kind of release valve. Now I'm playing pretty often and have a solid group, so there's no need to let off steam online.
  4. Swearing off forums. I do love hanging around places like and the rpg site, but I realised about 6 months ago that they were pretty much hives of scum and villainy (and in's case, annoying mods) and grotesque sinks of my time. Since forums are a great source of grist for the blogging mill, my lack of access to them simply stripped away a lot of stuff to write about.
  5. Having a Kindle. Alright, it didn't stop me blogging really, but I've been doing a lot of reading on it (thanks to the magnificent feat of human endeavour that is Project Gutenberg) and, well, I just wanted to show off my latest toy, really.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying, thanks for sticking with this blog despite its silence over the last few months. You can probably guess what my New Year's Resolution will be: To update my blog and comment on somebody's else's once a day on weekdays and once at the weekend for the duration of 2011. Can I make it beyond about January 8th? Watch this space.