Wednesday 29 August 2012

Tuesday Night Yoon-Suin: Session 7

[I promise this blog isn't going to become just actual play reports after 4 years of studiously avoiding them. I just have almost no time to devote to RPGs at the moment except the weekly session.]

Adventurers Present:

  • Marich, Level 2 Magic-User [played by David]
  • Anil, Level 1 Cleric of Manpac (eunuch) [played by Patrick
  • Manjeet, Level 1 Fighter [played by Nathan]
  • Retainers: Binod, Nagendra I, Nagendra II, Fat Sanjam, Lokendra, Sinba
Marich, Anil and Manjeet began plotting ways to placate the wizardess/whore Jharanda, and also get their revenge on Marich II, who they suspected of stealing from them. Eventually Manjeet and Marich decided to write a message which they sent to Jharanda through the daughter of the owner of their lodgings, a girl called Tyree. In it, they promised to tell the wizardress about one of the clay creations of the archmage Gulvedra, which they had encountered hiding at the Old Watchtower in the South, as a quid pro quo for letting Anil off the hook for annoying her. As yet, they have not received a response. 

Marich II was dealt with expediently: when the hirelings gathered together the next day he was exposed and humiliated in front of all of them, told to hand back the chain mail and weapons that had been bought for him, and removed from the PCs' employ. [DM's note: I was amazed that they didn't take him into the forest and beat him up or worse, which would have been far more in keeping with their escapades so far.] To replace him, and also Padma who had been slain, they hired a tall thin spearman called Lokendra, and a rather ugly teenage girl called Sinba, to fill out their ranks of underlings.

They then went to the Guild of Sages: Anil had decided that his god, Manpac, had preordained his previous encounter with the galeb duhr in the forest, and he wanted to know more about the galeb duhr and their origins. He agreed to provide a partial map of the first level of Sangmenzhang to the sage Man, in return for information on the galeb duhr. He learned that it was very unusual to see one in the forest, and that they usually inhabited the high mountains where men found it difficult to breathe. They wanted above all to merely survive - to exist in the face of adversity, like a mountain itself. Man speculated that the Yak Folk, the malevolent slavers of the peaks, would know more of them. The PCs left with curiosity piqued.

They decided to make their way to Sangmenzhang. On the way they encountered a group of pilgrims heading to the nearby Walung monastery; they later learned that the Walung were an order of meditative healers who practice the art of self-mummification to gain eternal (un)life. 

They entered Sangmenzhang through their secretly-discovered back entrance, from which they had ejected the Feathered Men. Here, they set about constructing an elaborate set of barricades from bamboo, allowing them to use the Feathered Men's cave as a kind of base of operations in the old citadel. From there, they set about exploring the immediate chambers. Almost instantly they encountered a group of hideous, flesh devouring maggots, which nearly killed Manjeet, Sinba and one of the Nagendras by released burrowing worms into their bodies which had to be cut out with knives and much loss of blood; but in the maggot chamber they recovered 8 big clay pots containing 784 coins of blended silver and gold. While they were busy dragging their wounded and the money to their base, they were set upon by a giant cave locust which they cornered and stabbed to death.

They stayed in their base for a few days, licking their wounds, although the fights had taken Anil to Level 2, and he was now able to use the power of Manpac to aid with healing. While resting in the cave they were forced to drive off or kill four pandas which ate their mule, tied up in the bamboo groves below; they decided to try to sell the panda bones and skins in Silaish Vo next they were there. They also, at night, heard something big and humanoid moving through the forest; the next day they found big footprints and a path of broken canes of bamboo, but decided to press on deeper into Sangmenzhang instead.

They came across a small chamber with the door barred from the inside, which they hacked down with axes, to discover what had once apparently been a bed chamber. It was a mystery as to how it could be barred from the inside with nobody in it. They discovered an ancient book made out of slate hidden in the wall, covered in strange circular script, and decided to take it with them.

They also discovered a group of strange gibbon-men, who they quickly slew; exploring further, they discovered another chamber in which they found many branches and twigs and broken egg-shells: they surmised that this was the place where the Feathered Men had been rearing young, and they speculated that the gibbon-men may have smashed the eggs.

Pressing deeper, the party came to a narrow corridor with a door at the end. While decided whether to open it, they were set upon from the rear by strange creatures: shaped like large dogs, they were nearly invisible and perfectly transparent, with only a vague outline indicating their presence. Bunched up in the corridor as the party was, things looked bleak: these strange dog-things killed Binod, in the rear, and then tore out Fat Sanjam's bowels, filling the corridor with blood and faeces. Manjeet, at the front by the door, had no choice but to open it and try to escape that way - but discovered the chamber behind was already inhabited by two very large, very intimidating female humanoid creatures of indeterminate origin. Desperate, the PCs begged to be allowed to shelter from the dog-things, while their remaining hirelings kept the hounds at bay with spears. Eventually the two female creatures allowed them to enter the chamber and shut and bar the door. 

The two creatures revealed themselves to be sisters, Quaggoths from the mountains, who had fled their clan and were hiding in Sangmenzhang. They explained that they had encountered the invisible dog-things before, and thought them demons who the ancient dwarves of Sangmenzhang had disturbed from the depths of the earth shortly before their downfall. Anil managed to strike up a relationship of a kind with these two Quaggoth sisters - mostly by abject begging - and they agreed an arrangement with the PCs, that they would cooperate to try to drive monsters from this area of the citadel and make it a more safe dwelling place for them. 

Thoughts: A fun session, with plenty of derring-do, some secret doors, some retainer death, and pandas. Patrick also seemed genuinely chuffed about making level 2 and finally being able to cast Cleric spells. The final tense crescendo - a perfectly timed random encounter - just goes to show that it isn't always all about bathos.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Tuesday Night Yoon-Suin: Session 6

[No session last week, because of work-related business. Unperturbed, we picked up where we left off, with Eki Ulele dead, and Marich and Anil camping alone in the forest, hiding from bandits and giant bees.]

Adventurers Present:

  • Marich, Level 1 Magic-User [played by David]
  • Anil, Level 1 Cleric of Manpac (eunuch) [played by Patrick]
  • Manjeet, Level 1 Fighter [played by Nate]
  • Retainers: Padma, Binod, Nagendra I, Nagendra II, One-toothed Marich ("Marich II"), Fat Sanjam
On character death, I am usually very quick to bring a replacement in for the player concerned, as soon as their new character is rolled-up. So we had Manjeet, Eki Ulele's replacement, appear as if from nowhere. He is a human fighter and son of a tea plantation owner, and Nate rolled a ridiculously luck set of stats, with a 16, a couple of 13s, and only one score under 9. He also got 8 on his hit point roll. Manjeet was travelling through the mountains on the way from his family's plantation in Sughd, with the aim of delivering some papers to the Baburam family, a clan of minor oligarchs in Silaish Vo. He more-or-less immediately threw in his lot with Marich and Anil when they promised him gold and glory, as one would expect. 

The three made it back to Silaish Vo unscathed and unmolested by bandits. It was pretty clear that return to Sangmenzhang was off the agenda for now, and revenge against Manesh and his bandit clan top of the 'to do' list. (Another benefit of character death in a game: it pisses the players off and adds that extra emotional bite.) After some rest at the Madrassah of Arcanea, where the PCs have their lodgings, they immediately began investigating Manesh's history, and were introduced to Jhalak Dorji, one of the Oligarch's factotums, who told them that Manesh was known to the authorities and wanted. He promised the PCs 500 gold pieces for Manesh dead, and 1000 for him alive. They immediately set about hiring goons to aid them in bringing him down.

This time they meant business, and not only recruited 6 underlings, but kitted them out with chain mail, shields, and various weapons, spending a sizeable wedge of their gold hoard to do so. These 6 were Padma (long beard, short bow), Binod (midget, dagger), Nadaraja I (red hair, javelins), Nadaraja II (no nose, spear), Sanjam (fat, spear), and Marich II (one tooth left, sabre). While in the market, however, they were stopped by a woman who had noticed their large expenditure. This was Tara Dev, a tax collector for the Oligarch, who told them that in future any amount of gold they gained for themselves would have to be taxed - at 50%. This was in return for the safety and comfort offered by the Oligarch to all those living in Silaish Vo. 

They set off into the mountains, heading back to Manesh's cave under the waterfall. They hatched a plan to, essentially, lie in wait by the cave to ambush people coming and going. Eventually five bandits appeared with a mule and a cow, heading towards the cave - they were obviously returning from a raid. After a brief skirmish the bandits were all slain to a man, with minimal harm to the PCs and their motley crew. But one of the bandits managed to run into the forest and yell to alert those in the cave to intruders before he got an arrow through the gullet. 

Manesh and 8 of his men sallied forth, and a lengthy battle ensued. But the players seem to have learned their lesson: combat is war, not sport. They had stacked the odds heavily in their favour by properly kitting out their underlings, and they used pretty smart tactics, with spear-wielding troops using their better reach over machete-wielding bandits, to take down Manesh and a few of his men; the rest fled. In return, only Padma was killed. 

The PCs left Marich II to search the bodies of the slain bandits, while they searched the cave and discovered a sizeable treasure hoard, including two scrolls. One, Anil discovered, contained a prayer to ward against the undead. The other was magical, and Marich would have to wait to return to Silaish Vo to discover its properties. Triumphant, they headed back to the city.

On the way, burdened with treasure and slowed by their captured mule and cow, they entangled with some giant centipedes and also came across a strange boulder-man in the forest: a galeb duhr. He was not violent, and simply insisted on being alone, offering the view that, rather than kill bandits, one could simply wait for them to die. He revealed himself to be thousands of years old.

Back in Silaish Vo they left their cronies to their own devices while they went to get their reward, which Jhalak Dorji duly paid. This, along with the treasure trove they had recovered from the cave, was enough to push Marich up to Level 2. This was the first level-up of the campaign. He got 1 extra hit point for his trouble, and the kudos of being the only PC who is still alive from the start. At the Madressa of Arcaneum he managed to persuade friendly Sujan, one of the instructors, to look at his scroll - it turns out it is a charm offering protection from beast who can become men, and men who can become beasts.

Anil decided to hire a replacement for the slain hireling Padma. On discussion with Liangyu Hui, the desert troll tea-shop owner, he learned that the hireling Marich II had been spending gold in sizeable amounts at the nearby whorehouse. This, Anil immediately (probably correctly) surmised, was because Marich II had been left alone with the bandit corpses after the battle, and had pilfered their gold for himself. He summoned  Marich and Manjeet to help, and went to the whorehouse to lay down the law.

The whorehouse is a pyramid structure, and is owned by a madam called Jharana. The PCs tried to get her to reveal where Marich II was, but she proved uncooperative, maintaining that she did not like to tell strangers information about clientele. Anil threatened her with his club and she became annoyed and asked them to leave, threatening them with powerful friends and emphasising things would turn out badly if he persisted. He ultimately left, with the idea of preaching against prostitution outside and scaring away all her clients until she cooperated, but Marich decided discretion was called for and slept him. 

Manjeet then went to ask Liangyu Hui about Jharana, to ask how he might make good and apologise. Liangyu Hui told him that Jharana had many extremely important and powerful "friends" in the city, and that Anil's life was probably in danger now he had annoyed her. But he also revealed that Jharana is also a wizardress of some repute, and is always interested in new knowledge, magicks, strange artefacts and documents, and so on. Such a gift might ameliorate her.

Some thoughts on the session: it was nice to see Marich level up, and good to see the players get revenge on Manesh, who was after all responsible for some amount of heartache. The players are also learning a bit more about the setting now, interacting with some of the more important NPCs in Silaish Vo, and getting to know the lay of the land. They are also probably getting an understanding that generally, there is no such thing as "excessive force" in D&D and only fools fight fair. 

They came up with some creative ideas, too. Marich used his only sleep spell in the first bandit encounter, and after that came up with the notion of using his mirror to reflect sunlight in the eyes of the enemy to distract them, which I ruled would reduce a bandit's effective AC to 10 and put them at -2 to hit for one round if he scored a successful hit. Anil's idea of preaching outside the brothel was also a nice attempt to work around a botched situation, after the players realised they'd probably bitten off more than they could chew with Jharana.

Finally, Patrick, Anil's player, has come up with the notion that his cleric continually prays to Manpac for guidance; whenever he does this, Patrick rolls an encounter dice he has, which is a d6 with a face on each side (smiley face, frown, sad face, indifferent face, etc.). He then uses the result to indicate what Manpac's view on the situation is, and acts accordingly. What started as a humorous idea now seems to have taken on a certain amount of meaning, and it is amusing to watch Patrick attribute fortunate turns of events to Manpac's guidance.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Failure of Imagination

Like a lot of BBC Magazine articles, this one is only of the mildest interest and coherence, but I found a certain aspect of it intriguing because it's indicative of a tendency I've sometimes noticed for people to attribute works of highly imaginative fantasy and SF to the author's use of narcotics. Usually, as in the case of Lewis Carroll, this is based on no evidence other than, "Well, he must have been on drugs, because that book is really weird!"

I think that sort of assumption says more about the person making it than it does the author. If you lack a good imagination of your own, I suppose it is natural to assume that everybody is that way, and could only possibly create amazing works of imagination under the influence. It doesn't seem to occur to them that, yes, some people just are that creative.

Not that I'm against trying to be the next Philip K Dick if that's your thing. Just don't diminish the creative power of the human brain by pretending everything weird is down to artificial stimulation.

Sunday 19 August 2012

C*nt Riot

Cunt riot are a riot grrrl 3-piece, loosely affiliated with the feminist agitprop Slater-Koney collective; like most individuals connected with that body, they are also involved in various forms of semi-organised crime, including gun-running, "tax collection", and plain old-fashioned assassination. The three members are known only as Ayano, Voina, and Wei.

Ayano, Voina, Wei

Wei is Cunt Riot's bassist and, in their non-musical pursuits, its Nuclear Option: she shoots first and doesn't ask questions. She never met a problem she couldn't put a bullet through the face of.

It is some times speculated that Wei spent time soldiering for warlords in the former USSR and the the Wild West of China. This seems entirely based on the fact she likes Soviet and Red Chinese guns.

INT 8 REF 10 CL 9 TECH 7 BODY 7 EMP 7/5 ATT 8 LUCK 5 MA 7
Combat sense +6, Handgun +6, Rifle +5, SMG +4, Melee +5, Aikido +5, Endurance +3, Heavy Weapons +4, Awareness +5
Neural processor
-Kerenzikov Boost +1
-Smartgun link
Usual Equipment:
Stolvoboy St-2 10mm
CCMMC Qi-15 assault shotgun
CCMMC Jinhua M-9
Nylon helmet (SP14)
Light kevlar jacket (SP12)
Light kevlar pants (SP10)


Ayano is Cunt Riot's lead singer and guitarist. She also writes the words. In her spare time, she cracks bones, removes fingernails, and breaks teeth.

INT 9 REF 10 CL 10 TECH 6 BODY 7 EMP 4/3 ATT 5 LUCK 5 MA 6
Combat Sense +5, Handgun +3, Rifle +2, Melee +5, Judo +7, Tae Kwon Doe +7, Interrogate +6, Intimidate +6, Awareness +5
-Voice stress analyser
-Bug detector
-Wide band radio scanner
-Digital recording link
Usual Equipment:
Sternmeyer P-35 11mm
Heavy kevlar jacket SP18


Voina doubles up on drums and illegal entry. She leaves the murder to the others.

Voina, some say, was a trained spy for the Mozambique state oil company. Others say she learned her trade in the employ of the Mumbai mafia.

INT 10 REF 8 CL 8 TECH 10 BODY 5 EMP 6/4 ATT 4 LUCK 7 MA 8
Hide/Evade +7, Shadow/Track +6, Pick Lock/Safecracking +7, Demolitions +4, Sambo +3, Resist Torture/Drugs +5, Stealth +8, Awareness +7
-Image enhancement
-Digital camera
-Ultraviolet vision
-Amplified hearing
-Radio link
-Homing tracer
-Sound editing
-Phone splice
-Level damper

Thursday 16 August 2012

Further AFF/D&D Quick Battle Resolution System Thoughts

I did a little more thinking about the quick battle rules while I should have been working today. I think the system is chiefly lacking rules for three things:

1. Surprise
2. Weather
3. Skill of the general

So I propose the following additions:


Before the battle assuming both sides are marching, each side rolls a d6. On a roll of 1 or 2, that side is surprised. It suffers -2 to its first battle round roll, and -1 thereafter. If one side is static, it is only surprised on a 1. It is possible for both sides to be surprised, in which case the modifier may be disregarded.


The weather modifies battle rolls as follows:

Very hot and dry - if one side is static it is never surprised. If both sides are marching, each side is surprised only on a 1.
Rain or snow - the ordinary bonus for mounted troops does not apply.
Heavy rain or snow - the ordinary bonuses for mounted troops and archers do not apply.
Fog - if one side is static and the other is marching, the marching side is surprised on a 1-4. Either side may flee at any time and automatically evade pursuit.

Skill of the general

A particularly skilful general gives a +1 bonus.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Advanced Fighting Fantasy and D&D Quick Battle Rules Mashup

Got a mass battle in your D&D game and you don't fancy going through the rigmarole of using the War Machine or similar? Try re-skinning the Advanced Fighting Fantasy rules from Allansia. It works like this:

1. Work out the number of troops on each side. Anything with more than one attack counts as [number of troops x number of attacks], so 2 troops for a 2 attack monster, 3 troops for a 3 attack monster, etc.
2. Add the number of troops from both sides, divide by 100, and round down: this is the total amount of rounds in the battle.
3. Each side rolls 2d6 and adds the following modifiers:
  • +1 positioned on higher ground
  • +2 fortified (e.g. stakes, ditches, etc.)
  • +4 strongly fortified (e.g. constructed fortifications)
  • -1 outnumbered
  • -2 outnumbered more than 2:1
  • -3 outnumbered more than 3:1
  • +1 better quality troops
  • +1 more than 10% missile troops
  • +1 each 25% of troops mounted
  • -1 mixed species army
  • -2 surprised or ambushed
  • +1 each previous battle round won
4. Highest score wins the round. The winner rolls [1d6 x difference between scores] and loses that many men from his side, 25% killed, 75% wounded. The loser just uses [difference between scores x 20] and loses that many men from his side, 50% killed, 50% wounded. The commander chooses where casualties are distributed.
5. Continue until all rounds are over, one side surrenders, or one side flees. If one side flees, the other may let them go and automatically capture all their wounded, or continue the fight, adding +2 bonus to the next combat round.

I may tweak this. For working out troop numbers, it might make more sense to base it on the number of hit dice rather than the number of attacks, perhaps incorporating the asterisk system from BECMI. You could also add on further sub-rules, forcing commanders to define some sort of "marching order" so the casualties get distributed for some units and not others, or perhaps allowing the commanders some way of selecting which of the enemy units lose men.


Gertrude the Grimy leads her army to try to lay siege to Bartholomew the Bastard's castle. Gertrude has 400 foot soldiers, 50 knights on horseback, and 100 archers. The knights have two attacks because of their magnificent war horses, so they count as 100. Total troops: 600.

Bartholomew the Bastard has 350 foot soldiers, 100 outriders on ordinary horses, and 75 crossbowmen mercenaries. Total troops: 525. 

The total number of troops is 1125, so there will be 11 rounds. 

Bartholomew has used his scouts well and knows Gertrude's line of approach: he prepares an ambush from higher ground. He also has higher quality troops and more than 10% of his troops have missile weapons. He has 2d6+1+1+1.

Gertrude's army is surprised, but they outnumber Bartholomew's, and 10% of her troops also have missile weapons. She has 2d6-2+1+1. 

For round 1, Bartholomew rolls 3, giving a total of 6. Gertrude rolls 7, giving a total of 7. Bartholomew may have prepared an ambush, but clearly this does not perturb Gertrude's men; she rolls [1d6 x difference between scores] and gets a 5; she loses only 3 men wounded and 2 killed in the initial fight. Bartholomew uses [difference between scores x 20] and hence loses 20 of his men, 10 killed and 10 wounded. Clearly, both armies have used screens of skirmishers and Gertrude's make the best of the initial exchanges. 

For round 2, Bartholomew rolls 8, giving a total of 11. Gertrude rolls 8, giving a total of 8. Now, clearly, the bulk of Bartholomew's army is swinging into action - maybe his crossbowmen are now letting fly: he rolls [1d6 x difference between scores] and gets 6 - he loses 18 men, 5 killed and 13 wounded. Gertrude's army, on the other hand, takes 60 casualties, 30 of whom are killed; perhaps Bartholomew's intelligent use of skirmishers has tricked Gertrude's men into over confidence.

And so on, for another 9 rounds. 

Tuesday 14 August 2012

D&D, Star Trek, Christianity and Cricket all walk into a bar...

On the way home from work I've been listening to some old Make It So - A Star Trek Podcast episodes (from before the half-way point, when it became progressively shitter). The hosts, who are around my age, discuss how they loved Star Trek: TNG as kids growing up, gradually stopped watched during their late teenage years and so missed out on some of DS9 and all of Voyager, stopped watching Trek entirely, and then around their late 20s suddenly rediscovered TNG and fell in love with it all over again.

It got me thinking: I went through pretty much exactly the same experience with Trek and rediscovered it a couple of years ago at the age of about 28 when I was bored and decided to order a season of it on DVD. Suddenly my interest in it was rekindled (though, thankfully, not enough to get interested in Voyager or Enterprise).

And I also went through the same experience with role playing games. I stopped playing those around the age of 16 or 17, I think, and then got back into them at age 25 or so. It happened too with cricket - I was a good player for my local team, then went away to university and drifted away from the game, to come back to it later.

It mirrors what happens to a lot of people with church, as well, I think. They drift away once they hit late teenage-hood, and often come back to it in later life (though that hasn't happened to me so far).

So I wonder: is the tendency to lose interest in the things you enjoyed as an adolescent a universal feature of growing up - a necessary element of the process of becoming an adult - and, if so, is a rediscovery of the things you used to love also a necessary element of maturity and confidence in yourself as an adult? It seems that way.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Map Porn

I am going to be very busy with work for the next few weeks. Posting may become sporadic. Here, have some map porn, and click to enlarge:

Map of steam-boat routes around Dutch New Guinea, early 20th century

Map of the Khanate of Khiva, later 19th century

Wednesday 8 August 2012

On Bathos

I think what I appreciate most in D&D is bathos: perhaps the overwhelming narrative characteristic of the game, insofar as it has any such characteristics. Random encounter tables, rolling dice in the open, taking results as they come, and resolute avoidance of illusionism or pallete-shifting of any kind - all of these elements of 'old school' D&D play contribute to the development of the bathetic.

People who like "narrative" games and prefer things to make "dramatic sense" usually miss this. 

An example of bathos from last night's game: Eki Ulele had just survived the most difficult and bloody encounter the party had yet had, in which 8 bandits and 2 hireling retainers had died and one of the PCs dying. He had been through, in many ways, his toughest moment. He had faced down the bandit leader and bluffed him into retreat, then survived a nerve-wracking chase through a pitch black forest, with no weapons or magic and only flasks of oil to aid him. He had led the opposition away from his wounded friends, buying them time to escape.

He survived all this, and if I was interested in trying to develop the "plot" of the campaign, as if it was a story, this would have been a defining episode for his character - the making of him. He would have gone on to better things, and grown as a person because of what happened to him at the bandit lair. Or perhaps he would have died bravely in one final showdown with the bandit leader, going out in a blaze of glory, remembered for ever more.

But the dice said otherwise: the next day he got an unlucky result and had a wilderness encounter; he got an unluckier result when it turned out to be giant bees; and an even unluckier result when he failed his surprise roll. He died a meaningless and ignoble death alone in the forest, stung to death by mindless insects. Bathos.

Yet this has its own narrative sense. Bathos and absurdity are proud and important traditions in drama and comedy. They may not be "emotionally satisfying", but they have their own value. The next time somebody makes out that you should fiddle or ignore dice rolls in the name of maintaining some sort of narrative consistency, remind them of this: "I prefer it bathetic, darling".

Tuesday Night Yoon-Suin: Session 5

[I've mostly avoided Actual Plays in the past, but I've decided it would be nice to have a log of my ongoing Yoon-Suin campaign for posterity's sake, and this is as good a place to keep it as any. It's largely for my own benefit because I know Actual Plays are incredibly dull 99% of the time unless you were at the table. I've not kept it for the first 4 sessions, but will do so from now on.]

Adventurers Present: 

  • Marich, Level 1 Human Magic-User [played by David]
  • Anil, Level 1 Human Cleric (eunuch) [played by Patrick]
  • Eki Ulele, Level 1 Slug-man Magic-User [played by Nathan]
  • Retainers: Asha (spear-wielding ex-whore), Surya (sabre and short bow), Bam (sabre and short bow)
In the previous sessions, the adventurers Damodar, Marich and Eki Ulele had sought employment with Nepsydaz, a sage at the guild of sages, who had paid them 500 gold pieces each for bringing them the Old King, a mad eunuch roaming the forests to the South of Silaish Vo. This they had done, after employing some peasants to help them, seeking the aid of a monkey-faced Mountain Spirit, and tangling with Renaudip and Binod, two rival adventurers they eventually killed. They also discovered a clay automaton hiding in the Old Watchtower, who it is said was created by Gulvedra, an arch-mage who lives far to the South - and they also irked Ui Yi, Eki Ulele's father/mother, from whom they stole horses.

After this, they had begun to explore the ancient Dwarf citadel of Sangmenzhang, discovering a group of strange almost-humans they later learned were called Hohools. These they killed, and recovered some treasures, although they lost Damodar [Patrick's first PC] and their cleric henchman, Sanjam. In return they rescued a poor kidnapped eunuch named Anil [Patrick's next PC], a cleric of Manpac, god of mazes. Back in Silaish Vo they secreted their treasures in their lodgings at the Madrassa of Arcanea, after avoiding the Oligarch's tax men.

They returned to Sangmenzhang forthwith with new recruits, and tangled with some bandits on the way who they learned were led by a man named Manesh. In the citadel they encountered dwarf skeletons and discovered a vast underground lake filled with luminous jellyfish, which they traversed with a bamboo raft. Here, they fought with carnivorous lungfish and lost another of their retainers, the lowly Dev. Chased by a giant slug, they were then herded deeper into Sangmenzhang...

The session began with the players in a small room containing bones and rags and a large hole in the ceiling, which they established with the use of mirrors contained some sort of crustacean or insectoid being. Avoiding this hole, they left the room heading south, and discovered a long corridor with two rooms leading off it. The first of these was a circular pit-room decorated with murals that were mostly eroded by water damage, but seemed to depict dwarves in combat. The second, a little further along, was empty save for ancient bird bones covering the floor: in the ceiling was a long, narrow shaft leading up hundreds of feet to the outside world.

At the end of the corridor they discovered a cave which opened up onto the mountainside. This cave contained four Feathered Men: scrawny humans with wings for arms and beaks for mouths, who were apparently using this cave as a launch pad to the outside world. After a brief fight Eki Ulele was left unconscious but two of the Feathered Men were dead; one managed to fly free and make his escape, while another, injured, managed to climb down the mountainside from the cave mouth to safety in the tree-line. With Eki Ulele unable to continue the party returned to the shaft room, where they made camp for the night, barricading the door.

During the night their sleep was disturbed by more Feathered Men, who came looking for their missing fellows. They charged down the door and in a sharp exchange one of the Feathered Men was killed; the rest fled and the party re-barricaded the door. After a time it became clear the other Feathered Men were busy with some ruse outside; the party charged from the room to discover an effort to smoke them out. They fought a running battle back to the mountainside cave, where they killed six Feathered Men in total. But brave Surya's head was clubbed in by the enemy leader and he was slain. Marich and Anil mutilated the Feathered Man corpses and hung them from the mountainside as a warning to others.

With Eki Ulele eventually recovered, they pressed on, and discovered the treasure of the Feathered Men: 800 gold pieces in metallic urns. These urns, coated with poison, nearly killed the foolhardy Eki Ulele, and again the party was forced to retreat, climbing down the mountainside from the cave opening and working their way back to Sangmenzhang's entrance.

There, they discovered that their mule, Eko, who they had left outside, had been stolen. They immediately assumed Manesh's bandits were the culprits. After resting to lick their wounds they followed the trail of the stolen mule and after a day's travel discovered a secluded waterfall and river - Manesh's lair. Here, they ambushed a pair of wandering bandits and after killing one, tortured the other to reveal that Manesh's gang had 9 members. 

Without further planning, they hatched a scheme to bring Manesh and his men out from their cave lair behind the waterfall. This involved pretending to be the members of the bandit patrol they had ambushed - a ruse which was almost immediately foiled when a password was demanded. The party taunted Manesh with the further torturing of their captive. Six bandits sallied from the cave and a vicious fight ensued. Anil was sorely wounded and rendered unconscious, while Bam and Asha were slain, and all the six bandits killed (with Eki Ulele slicing the throats of three who Marich had cast into magical sleep). 

A standoff followed as Eki Ulele tried to distract Manesh the bandit chief and his two remaining men while Marich dragged Anil deep into the forest to safety. After some cat and mouse evasion in the dark, Eki Ulele too managed to make his escape, though in a different direction to Marich and Anil. Scattered and bloodied, the party rested in their separate locations, wondering how they might reunite.

The next day, Marich and Anil rested in an improvised bivouac. Eki Ulele, however, was set upon in the forest by giant bees and stung to death. And thus the session ended.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

The Humble Sling

I've always thought slings are under-rated. If you ask me, there is something much more frightening about having a rock flung at you at supersonic speed than an arrow - something hideous and terrifying about the thought of a hefty chunk of stone hitting you FULL IN THE FACE and shattering teeth and bone. 

From Charles C. Mann's 1491:
Although Andean troops carried bows, javelins, maces and clubs, their most fearsome weapon, the sling, was made out of cloth. A sling is a woven pouch attached to two strings. The slinger puts a stone or slug in the pouch, picks up the strings by the free ends, spins them around a few times, and releases one of the strings at the proper moment. Expert users could hurl a stone, the Spanish adventurer Alonso Enriquez de Guzman wrote, "with such force that it will kill a horse...I have seen a stone, thus hurled from a sling, break a sword in two pieces when it was held in a man's hand at a distance of thirty paces". (Experimenting with a five foot long, Andean-style sling and an egg-sized rock from my garden, I was able, according to my rough calculation, to throw the stone at more than one hundred miles per hour. My aim was terrible though.) 
In a frightening innovation, the Inka heated stones in camp fires until they were red hot, wrapped them in pitch-soaked cotton, and hurled them at their targets. The cotton caught fire in mid-air. In a sudden onslaught the sky would rain burning missiles. During a counter attack in May 1536 an Inka army used these missiles to burn Spanish-occupied Qosqo to the ground. Unable to step outside, the conquistadors cowered in shelters beneath a relentless, weeks-long barrage of flaming stone...
I'm toying with bumping sling damage up to d6 for my games, or allowing two attacks at d4 damage to reflect the speed with which they can be fired.

They're also one of those weapons that no sensible adventurer should be without. The ideal D&D fighter, in my view, uses a hafted weapon - a spear or trident - and sling combination, probably also with a bola or net if the DM allows it, and a shield, of course. The spear or trident doubles up as a pokey-thing for poking stuff, which is one of the most crucial adventuring tasks. And the sling provides essentially infinite ranged attacks: if for some ungodly reason you can't find rocks to fire, you fling copper coins instead. If push comes to shove, you can also use it is a club by putting a big rock in the pouch and whipping your opponents.

Finally, there are records of troops in resistance movements in World War II using slings to fling molotov cocktails. No problems with flasks not breaking there, I think.

Monday 6 August 2012

Dogs in Other Places

For those who don't know it, Dogs in the Vineyard is an RPG in which the players take on the roles of "God's Watchdogs", who roam from town to town in a sort-of Mormon Deseret dispensing justice, rooting out demonic influence, solving crimes, resolving conflicts, and generally sorting stuff out in whatever manner they see fit. The rules are tightly focused with that sort of game in mind, and they include a method for generating towns with the assumption that the players will be travelling from place to place episodically each session or so.

Like all rulesets that people call "tightly focused", Dogs really isn't all that tightly focused. It can be used, really, for any sort of game in which:

a) The players roam from location to location resolving conflicts
b) They are invested with the power and authority to do so
c) The way the conflicts are resolved is entirely open-ended
d) The conflicts are based around sin, corruption, decadence, and so on

Which means that, really, it would be almost criminally easy to rejig the system to run:

  • Dogs in the Grimdark Future: The players are inquisitors travelling around a subsector of the Imperium in the year 40,000, rooting out daemonic influence
  • Dogs in Canaan: The players are biblical judges in the Deuteronomic era, travelling from village to village, fighting against idolatory, oppressive kings, and the collapse of social order
  • Shire Reeves in the Vineyard: The players are sheriffs or shire-reeves responsible for keeping the peace in a shire in Anglo-Saxon England
  • Dogs in the West: The players are US Marshals in the American West - Clint Eastwood eat your heart out
  • Inu in the Budouen: The players are samurai charged by the local Daimyo with law and order for a frontier province

And so on and so forth. 

Friday 3 August 2012

Dungeons & Discoveries

One D&D variant I'd like to run would be a campaign I call Salomon's House, after Sir Francis Bacon's college of sages in his book New Atlantis. This institution, in Bacon's mythical utopia of Bensalem, was set up to "to discern between divine miracles, works of nature, works of art, and impostures and illusions of all sorts" by discovering "the works of Creation, and the secrets of them".

Salomon's House in the original is supposed to be a place where scientific experiments are conducted - it is sort of a blueprint for the modern research university - but in my version it would be about sending adventurers forth into creation, to discover monsters, strange beings, divers creatures and magicks, wondrous places, and mysteries of the universe. Things of that nature. Basically, a guild of sages who send groups out into fantastical wildernesses, ruins, and other planes, to bring back whatever they can for sages to study and analyse.

This would require rejigging the XP system, I think: the aim is not to gather gold and advance that way, but to gather knowledge. So XP would be awarded for mapping new locations, finding new archives and bestiaries, capturing new creatures, bringing back the bodies of bizarre life forms, exploring new experiences, eating new foodstuffs, trying new drugs, shagging new alien races, or whatever. This could just map to gold for XP, ultimately (the sages pay money for all this information) but I also quite like the idea of people doing it for the sake of knowledge. A little like a mixture of the Fraternity of Order and the Society of Sensation in Planescape, but more cerebral than the latter and more chaotic than the former. Perhaps a forerunner of the empiricists, though more interested in cataloguing and enumerating than experimentation. So you might have a system of XP awards for the importance of the discovery and the risks associated with it.

Naturally, this would make extensive use of random generators, so the DM is partially in on the act of discovery too. It would also have different character classes, because most of the standard D&D ones don't fit. Handily, Bacon supplies us with different categories of sages working at Salomon's House who have ridiculously cool 17th century names:
  • Merchants of light
  • Depredators
  • Mystery-men
  • Pioneers
  • Compilers
  • Dowry-men
  • Lamps
  • Inoculators
  • Interpreters of nature

I don't know about you, but if I could play a character class called a "mystery-man" I would be all over it like a rash.

Thursday 2 August 2012

On Wickedness

The two most recent books I have read are Antony Beevor's The Second World War, and Empire of the Summer Moon. These two books are radically different in scope, one covering the biggest and most intense conflict in human history, the other a series of tiny skirmishes fought over decades in a near-empty wilderness. And yet they have one thing in common: they make you aware, in no uncertain terms, of the absolutely extraordinary extent of "man's inhumanity to man".

In Beevor's book we read of SS men at Treblinka picking young children up by their ankles and swinging them down like mallets to dash their brains out on rocks, Red Army soldiers gang raping and murdering Russian women who were enslaved by Germans and who they had just "liberated" on their invasion of East Prussia, Japanese soldiers from different units abducting each other to cannibalise, Soviet officers who have done nothing wrong being summarily shot by their superiors to instil discipline into others, Allied bombers flattening Dresden just because it was the only city in Germany they hadn't flattened, the USAAF judging the success of its missions in Japan on how many innocent Japanese women and children it had burned to death, citizens of Leningrad abducting and killing their own neighbours' children to eat during the winter of 1941....and so on and so on.

In Gwynne's, we read of Comanche raiders gang raping and scalping pregnant women; slicing off rival tribe members' noses, arms and legs and then burning them alive; cutting off the bottoms of captives' feet and making them walk around for their own amusement; Texan militiamen shooting Cheyenne women and children who surrender to them and then mutilating their corpses in horrific ways; Texas rangers killing thousands of head of horses in cold blood to stop them falling into Comanche hands; Ute women bludgeoning helpless octogenarian Comanches to death with axes...and so on and so on.

It's enough to make one wonder: if this is the kind of thing human beings routinely do to one another in certain circumstances, what kind of stuff would orcs do? And let alone orcs - what would demons and devils do? What, indeed, does "evil" really even mean, given what we know about history?

This is the main reason why I lean increasingly towards humans as the key protagonists and antagonists in my campaign settings. Anything an orc can do, we can do better. And who needs a goblin when the thought of being tortured to death by a fellow human being is so much more plausible and disturbing?

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Only the Good Die Young

One of my favourite NPCs died tonight. You know how it is as a DM. Most of the time the NPCs you create are there for a purpose and you play them as best you can, but not with any special interest or enthusiasm. But every so often one comes along who you happen to really enjoy playing - and usually it's by serendipity; somebody who for one reason or another you and the players develop something of an attachment for.

Dev was one of these. A retainer who the players hired to accompany them to the dungeon for the grand sum of 5 gold pieces a month, my initial notes for him on my random hireling table were "about 15 years old, short bow, skinny, 2hp". He was generated alongside a woman called Asha, whose notes were "retired whore, one-eyed, spear, 5hp". I immediately decided that Dev was in love with Asha, but didn't know how to express it, and that Asha allowed him to 'pleasure her' whenever she wanted it. I didn't expect them to last very long, but they actually stuck around through a few delves, and Dev managed to get a few kills with that short bow.

What I liked best about Dev was the idea I hit upon that the only word he knew how to say was "okay". He would say it in an eager-to-please fashion in response to anything anybody said to him. This never failed to amuse me, especially in situations where he was asked a question.

In any event, Dev died tonight. It was a pretty ignoble death: crossing a subterranean lake in the ancient dwarf citadel of Sangmenzhang on a bamboo raft the PCs had brought along, he was savaged by a carnivorous lungfish and fell overboard into a swarm of tiny stinging jellyfish. He never stood much of a chance in the front row with 2 hit points.

It was a pitiful end to a rather pitiful session: tonight was one of those nights for my players. They lost 2 retainers, and twice PCs came a flukey dice roll away from death. They were forced to flee by a swarm of cockroaches, attacked by dwarf skeletons, and chased by a giant slug which they had to shut behind a doorway which was their only apparent escape route back to the surface. All they got was about 1000 silver pieces from inside the bellies of a bunch of lungfish, and a couple of rings with semi-precious stones, for their efforts. Oh well. Nobody ever said dungeoneering was easy.