Sunday 29 March 2015

Classes in There is Therefore a Strange Land: Preliminary Thoughts

There is Therefore a Strange Land has four classes:

The Dilettante, a dabbler who has no special abilities, akin to a rogue or fighter.

The Tarot Reader, who uses the major arcana to cast spells.

The Cleric or Satanist, who uses the power of prayer to summon supernatural aid.

The Alchemist, who brews potions and creates materials to bestow special abilities.

The rough idea for the Alchemist is as follows.

Renaissance alchemy had, I believe, four different 'stages' - Nigredo, Albedo, Citrinitas and Rubedo, corresponding to black, white, yellow and red. So the Alchemist class follows this progression. The easiest stage is nigredo, which involves harming the environment or other beings. Albedo involves healing and purification. Citrinitas involves transmutation and polymorphing. And Rubedo is the truly powerful, awe-inspiring secret abilities of the Alchemist who has completed his or her magnum opus.

Each stage has its own ability list, which is partly completely new spells and partly re-skinnings of existing D&D ones. In order to use the abilities, the Alchemist has to have access to materials which he can combine in advance before use. So playing as an Alchemist is all about pre-preparing your potions, oils, greases and so on for use on a given adventure, discovering what materials are needed for other new abilities, and finding/buying those materials.

The Tarot Reader uses the major arcana in a standard tarot deck in various combinations to cast spells. Before any given adventure, he or she draws a number of major arcana from the deck as if reading the tarot, depending on his or her level (3 cards for level 1, say, 5 cards for level 3, etc.). The tarot reader can then combine the cards in his possession into various pre-determined combinations for existing spells - or try to come up with unique combinations for spell-like effects agreed with the DM.

The Cleric or Satanist performs rituals in order to gain powers. These could be prayers or masses, sacrifices, or even attempts to summon angels or demons respectively. The cleric is not a healer, but one who calls on the power of his or her divinity to smite enemies or provide services. In There is Therefore a Strange Land, Christianity is a real thing, but the theology of Christianity is subject to conflict.

The Dilettante is somebody who is investigating portals to the Strange Land primarily from a sense of adventure or to earn money. They have no special abilities, but they gain levels quickly, and are typically the strongest in a fight.

Major Investigating Powers

In There is Therefore a Strange Land, going through portals may draw the attention of other investigators in the city - attention which is likely to be unwanted. These investigators are typically rich and powerful individuals from the upper echelons of society, who have considerable resources - both supernatural and mundane - to draw from.

Whenever a PC returns from the Strange Land and either consults an expert or fence about an item, or sells an item, there is a 1 in 6 chance of drawing the attention of an investigating power with the relevant specialism. How he/she acts depends on the DM: it may be making contact, sending spies to observe, or simply an assassination attempt.

Quirks, Motives
Class (level 2d6+1)
Grossly fat
Pompous and pretentious
Believes him/herself to be made of glass
Skeletally thin
Lascivious and suggestive
Addicted to opium eating
Strikingly handsome or beautiful
Blunt and dismissive
Believes the real world is a dream and hopes to someday dispel it
Goitred and deformed
Boorishly talkative
Has a pet which he/she dotes on
Decrepit and old
Quiet and reserved
Intends to dispose of all rivals
Wiry and sinuous
Hateful and suspicious
Secretly works for a member of the royal family
Muscular and powerful
Flies into impotent rages
Plans to summon beings from the Strange Land to do his/her bidding
Tarot reader
Missing an eye, ear, nose or tongue
Friendly and welcoming
Is a serial killer
Tarot reader
Youthful and fresh-faced
Nervous and constantly sweating
Has an identical twin; nobody else knows
Tarot reader
Red-nosed and consumptive
Shifty, never making eye contact
Was long ago possessed by a spirit from the Strange Land
Warty and ugly
Aggressive and confrontational
Is a spiritualist who can communicate with the dead
A small person
Painfully shy
Is an important celebrity (artist, poet, opera singer, etc.)

Thursday 26 March 2015

From my next project

My sophomore self-published effort is provisionally titled There is Therefore a Strange Land. Here's something from it:

Portal Type
Portal Opening
Ordinary-looking door
Simply on opening the door
The portal leads to a limbo-like vestibule where a guardian checks equipment and confiscates roughly half the items (1-3 on a d6 for each item)
Out-of-place door (made of metal, leather, etc.)
At a certain time each day
The portal temporarily causes those passing through to forget how to speak (10-60 minutes)
On “the magic words” being spoken
The portal temporarily blinds those passing through (10-30 minutes)
With a special key
The portal is twinned with another portal somewhere in the city; every time it opens, so does its twin – with a 1 in 6 possibility something from the bestiary, picked at random, slips through into the real world.
Sideboard cupboard
With a certain mixture of ingredients smeared on the forehead of those trying to enter
The portal closes for 1d6 days an hour after it is entered. It cannot be opened during that period.
Knocking a certain code
The portal causes those entering to randomly switch hp totals, sexes, facial features, or similar. If only one person enters, swap two random stats.

And here's a piece of inspirational art:

Thursday 19 March 2015

Fantasy Dolphins and Failures of Imagination

People find dolphins charming. This is not news. It's rather odd, though, as in real life dolphins can be murderous vagabonds and brutal sadists: perpetrators of sexual violence who also enjoy torturing their innocent victims for their own personal satisfaction. They may seem like they are friendly and playful, almost laughing along with you as you watch their acrobatic leaps, but look at the eyes: the eyes are studious and mean; the eyes contain depths of contempt; the eyes never laugh. To look into the eyes of a dolphin is to look into the cold, calculating eyes of a sea-dwelling sociopath. They are the eyes of a predator.

But small girls think they're cute, so "swimming with dolphins" ends up on most people's bucket list.

In fantasy too, people have more or less universally fallen for the myth that dolphins are on the side of the angels. Friendly allies, or even super-intelligent founders of underwater civilisations. This reached its apogee in the 2nd edition AD&D Monstrous Manual, in which dolphins are Lawful Good, have an intelligence of 11-12 (bear in mind the human average is 9-12), and are described as "benign" and "inherently peaceful". One suspects the AD&D Monstrous Manual would not have been written that way if it had been created by mackerel.

We have a failure of imagination when it comes to cute or intelligent animals. We have a natural tendency to impute them with emotions and ideas that are not their own. Animal lovers (I count myself one) are especially guilty of this. It's odd that the more time one spends thinking about and looking at animals, the more one tends to develop this blind spot about them. It often does them a disservice: it infantilises them. It reduces their complex and fundamentally alien nature.

I don't have a great deal of time for Wittgenstein, but he was on to something with his famous remark about the lion. If a dolphin could talk we could not understand him. Or, if we could translate all those clicks and hisses and supersonic squeaks, we could still not understand them. Wittgenstein meant that to understand language you needed to understand the social context; like a lot of philosophers he wasn't thinking very clearly - the problem with an animal isn't the different social context so much as it's the different biological one. A dolphin brain is not a human one. Their thoughts are not of a human nature, and in fact the act of trying to make them understandable to humans necessarily reduces them and transforms them into something they are not. It denies the richness of an individual of another species' lived experience and the possibility of true difference.

That's not to say that it isn't fun to try, though. What thoughts would you think if you were an intelligent, efficient predator who grew up in the sea and had never gone on land and indeed hated it and was terrified by it? What if you had no idea where the next meal was coming from and lived in a perpetual state of searching with your extended family for sustenance? What if you were one of the great swimmers, an ocean-going nomad, who was still tied to the air as if there was an invisible leash constantly dragging you back to the surface? As if you could never be truly free? (Or to spin that last thought on its head: imagine if every 10 minutes you had to go and dip your head in the ocean in order to stay alive.) What if every so often big brutish cold hard objects, which you had no words for, and crawling with mewling, jabbering creatures, churned the ocean surface above you? What if sometimes those big objects were dragging great webs between them which threatened to tangle everything in the sea up inside them?

Now think of a hawk, or an ant, or a pig, or an ape, or a crocodile. What would you think if you were one?

Monday 16 March 2015

Given My Druthers...

If my full-time job was designing games, and I had a sizeable budget for art and layout and all the rest of it, and for some reason big RPG companies decided to no longer protect their intellectual property, I would do the following three things:

Make an Inner Planes Campaign Generator: this would be a single, probably large volume. It would have a single set of hex maps and a large number of tables, a bit like my approach in Yoon-Suin with individual DMs populating their own maps, but the tables would be re-skinnable by plane. So you would roll a dice and consult a certain table, and the result would be abstract enough (e.g. "undead spirit of an ancient sorcerer who has imbued his soul into an elemental whose consciousness he has enslaved"; "Trading outpost populated by dwarves and protected from the elements by runic magic"; etc.) that it could mean something similar but different depending on whether it was in the Plane of Water or the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Salt or the Para-Elemental Plane of Ooze or whatever. Alternatively I would be tempted to make a setting book for every single inner plane, but that may be beyond even this pipe dream.

Make a proper version of Changeling: the Lost: White Wolf had some good ideas, but their games are all very precious and focused on teenage concerns: existential angst, feelings of alienation and difference, emotional highs and lows, etc. While in a sense this is part of their genius, in that they managed to bottle something that a certain portion of teenage nerds would respond to very strongly, it also often results in a very weak and amorphous sense of what is supposed to be going on beyond a group of people being sad they are vampires/angry they are werewolves/glum they are dead/ennuye they are fairies, etc. Changeling: The Lost is the classic example of this: the PCs are human beings who were kidnapped by faeries and taken as slaves, but who have now returned or escaped....which could make for a great urban fantasy sandbox affair if only the makers of White Wolf hadn't wanted the whole thing to be some sort of worthy meditation on victimhood and how unfair life is. The whole thing is ripe with interest: you've been enslaved by faeries for God knows how long, you have been replaced by a Fetch who looks like a bunch of twigs in human form but everybody else mistakes for you, you have this understanding that there is a supernatural other world out there, you know of a group of other people in the same position: now what? Forget all the sitting around whining about it and coming to terms with it. 

Make In a Jamesian Age: a story game using the In a Wicked Age rules and based on the works of MR James. Each time the PCs are antiquarians or academics investigating some mysterious church, country manor, library, or whatever, and the oracles contain things like "an ancient Anglo-Saxon crown", "a version of the testament of Solomon written on human skin", "a deep dark well", "a gnostic sorcerer" and so forth. Full of Satan worship, the Apocrypha, ghosts and devils, and mysteries left completely unexplained: forget all that Sword & Sorcery nonsense; this is Ghosts & Scholars. 

Friday 13 March 2015

The Dungeon Escape

PCs are usually on the outside, breaking in. They are rarely on the inside, breaking out. What if an adventuring party began life at the bottom of a megadungeon, with the aim of getting to the surface?

One of my favourite roguelikes, ToME (now sadly transformed into something overly complicated, which seems the fate of all roguelikes in the end, and even more sadly shorn of its Tolkienism), used to have that kind of feature. In it, you could begin in the normal way as an adventurer in Bree about to explore Middle-Earth. Or you could begin as a "lost soul" in the Halls of Mandos - a spirit trying to make his way back to the real world again. This was a considerable challenge, because you began in the deepest part of the Halls of Mandos, home to the most powerful monsters in the game. Most characters starting as "lost souls" last about 2 minutes before being squished by some ancient wyrm of power or colour out of space. (Yes, ToME gleefully mixed Tolkien, Zelazny and Lovecraft, because fuck you, that's why.)

I imagine a D&D variant of this revolving around the Abyss, where the Abyss is some vast megadungeon which is at least in part procedurally generated - between sessions by the DM, most likely. The PCs have for some reason ended up on, say, the 3654th layer. Maybe they are dead souls of Chaotic Evil types; maybe they were kidnapped by Demons; maybe the Celestial Bureaucracy just made a clerical error. Whatever the reason, they're somewhere very dangerous and they need to get out.

Another idea: the PCs begin having accidentally wandered into the dream-space of an eternally slumbering crocodilian demigod and have to find some way back to the world of the waking - while surviving the contents of a crocodile's dreams.

A third: the PCs are victims of the Lady of Pain, who has whimsically spirited them off to one of her mazes. What else is there? Other prisoners. Billions of them, amassed over the many eons the Lady has ruled in the city. All eternally doomed to wandering a world of corridors and rooms that is literally endless.

Another: the PCs are on Voyager and have to find the way home No, never mind that.

I would like to call this method of play "The Dungeon Escape" and raise it at the next annual meeting of the OSR.

Monday 9 March 2015

Of The North

Chris McDowall, the creator of Into the Odd, recently joked that Liverpool was like the Florence of the Old School Renaissance with both Yoon-Suin and Fire on the Velvet Horizon coming out in such quick succession. Now, first of all humility compels me to demur, but also I live in Newcastle nowadays, and half of the creative energy behind FOTVH comes from New Zealand. So I think making Liverpool the Florence of the OSR is perhaps a little inaccurate. But still, if you include Chris, who lives in Manchester, I think we can make a play for the North of England being at least the Tuscany of the OSR - can't we? Can you at least give us that?

The North of England is seen by the rest of the country as a miserable place. It's like how most Americans seem to view the Deep South. Except whereas the Deep South is slavery, mint juleps, cotton fields, devout Christianity, Walker Evans, and dogs gasping for breath in the summer heat, "Up North" is flat caps, whippets, coal miners, bleak grey skies, unemployment, Roy 'Chubby' Brown, and hen nights in Blackpool featuring "Drunk and Gorgeous" t-shirts and cock-shaped lollipops.

But in spite of this the North of England has always been its creative heart - certainly since the Industrial Revolution. You only have to list the ridiculously large number of world-conquering musicians who've come from the comparatively tiny slice of land that is Liverpool and Manchester, the poets and writers and artists and actors, the sportsmen, the comedians. Factor in Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, and the innumerable towns lying in their orbits, and you can make a strong case for the North of England being pound-for-pound the most successfully artistically creative area of the world of comparative size since the Second World War.

Why is this? On the one hand the North is a very beautiful place, and large swathes of it are very wealthy; most Southerners imagine it as bleak and impoverished because they never go there. Drive ten minutes from Byker, in Newcastle, which is one of the poorest places in Western Europe, and you're in the Elysian Fields of Ponteland rubbing shoulders with barristers, actuaries and footballers who live in 16th-Century manor houses with packs of Irish wolf hounds and horses. And while the North suffered more than most areas of the country in the 1970s and 80s, most of its cities are now undergoing genuine renaissances (Liverpool in particular is simply unrecognisable to how it was when I was a lad; in the dodgy side streets 5 minutes away from the city centre where you simply couldn't park in 1987 without your radio and hub caps being nicked, there are now trendy gourmet burger restaurants full of blokes in pseudo-Victoriana-wear with moustaches and smoking e-cigarettes, and speakeasy-type bars with blacked out windows which only let cool people in and serve Old Fashioneds with massive ice cubes. There's a set of traffic lights in Toxteth where I vividly remember my mum getting robbed as we pulled to a stop; it's now the heart of student town, full of flocks of girls in leggings and lads with slicked-back hair and their t-shirt sleeves rolled up to show off their gym biceps.)

And yet on the other hand many parts of the North are bad places to live. I didn't grow up in a former pit village in County Durham, or the Clockwork Orange world of Speke or Kirkby, but in the town where I grew up it's safe to say there wasn't much going on. When I tell people I'm from Wallasey I normally get a blank stare: it's the kind of place you only know if you're from there. I usually describe it as being pubs and houses. That's all it really is: 50,000 people and a heck of a lot of beer. "Culture" in Wallasey is getting a Chinese meal-for-two for £10 from Asda. It's nice enough, but if you're a kid growing up there you have to make your own fun.

And that's the key to it really: that's why the North is a hotbed of creative energy. It's because for a lot of kids there's fuck all to do except make music or write poetry or whatever. When you're living in a terraced house where it's always either raining or about to rain, and where the only colours around you are drab browns and greys and colours that look like them, you have to go the extra mile yourself. Your imagination hones itself. Some people turn to football, some turn to pop music, others apparently turn to role playing games. I'm not sure that this is the only reason why I came up with Yoon-Suin (the fact that I fucked off somewhere else in England and then across to the other side of the World may also have something to do with that), but I'm sure it's significant. So if you're looking for somebody to blame for this flowering of OSR stuff... put it down to the rain, economic stagnation, and the alchemy of D&D's effects on a bored kid's brain.

Friday 6 March 2015

More Yoon-Suin Thoughts and an Announcement

I will stop my obsessive and, frankly, undignified marketing drive for Yoon-Suin now, but I have two codas to the whole thing.

First, a good friend of mine wrote this, and I liked it so much, and think it summarises what the setting is all about so much, that I'll share it:

Perhaps something else no-one has said is how much Yoon-Suin is about beauty.... All of the sights in it are picturesque. Very like an orientalist painting. Even the very horrible locations are a little more ripe than harsh. And the culture depicted in Yoon-Suin is about luxury and about beauty. Its relaxed instead of tight, slow instead of quick, warm rather than cold, lit rather than dark, sad rather than grim, opium not cocaine. Some RPG settings are created, in the manner of Apocalypse world, on a kind of energetic tilt so that whatever the PC's do when they wander into it will have deep ramifications, the world will spin around them. One gets the sense that, no matter how the DM constructs it, the world of Yoon-Suin is not going to change very much regardless of what the players do. The opium barges will still drift down the Yellow River, the slaves will still have rubbish lives, the Slug Men are not going to be deposed from the Yellow City. (Who would bother to? And who would replace the Slug Men? Calm down and have some tea.) The politics of the Hundred Kingdoms will always be chaotic and the chaos will never change. The PC's are simply moving through this world like everyone else.

Second, a number of people have said they have bought both the PDF and print versions, or are thinking about doing so. I'd like to give those people something extra, so my plan is to send them a free PDF Yoon-Suin dungeon that I created for a game. This is The Halls of the Shimmering Stars in the Deep Blue Firmament, and is a three-floored palace with approximately 120 rooms total. If you have bought the PDF and print versions of Yoon-Suin, then email me (jean.delumeau AT gmail. youknowtherest) with your order numbers from payhip/drivethruRPG and lulu, and I'll send you the dungeon when I've typed it up and scanned the maps.

Thursday 5 March 2015

Yoon-Suin Print Edition is Released

Yoon-Suin is released in print. Yes, finally, it's here.

The link to the lulu purchase page is here:

It is a 9" x 7" landscape paperback book, 327 pages, and costs £12.50.

Yoon-Suin is a campaign toolbox for fantasy games, giving you the equipment necessary to run a sandbox campaign in your own Yoon-Suin - a region of high adventure shrouded in ancient mysteries, opium smoke, great luxury and opulent cruelty. 
It contains:
  • A bestiary of unique monsters, including self-mummified monks, liquid golems, tiger-beetle men, figments, and dozens more
  • A new character class, the Crab-man
  • A chapter for each of the major regions of Yoon-Suin, filled with random generators to brainstorm map contents, social groups, and more
  • Extended rules for poisons, tea, opium, trade, deities and so on
  • Extended rules for exploring the Old Town of the Yellow City, and the haunted jungles of Lahag
  • Many encounter tables
  • Well over 100 pre-written adventure locales
  • 320+ pages of content
  • Purple prose

Wednesday 4 March 2015

The Tortoise Curse

In the wastes of Lower Druk Yul, where only the occasional grasshopperman tribe wanders by but otherwise the wind is left to its own devices, there are kurgans - burial mounds - made from the dessicated husks of huge, long dead tortoises. Only the shells remain, hollowed out, along with the contents which ancient people put there.

There are a dozen of these kurgans dotted across an area of 100 or so square miles. They are so far from civilization that they are largely unknown and untouched. Each contains TT: B, along with something or somebody dead. Breaking into any of the tombs brings a curse on the head of the first interloper to enter. Slowly but surely he or she is transformed into a tortoise; the process takes 6 weeks and cannot be lifted except by a remove curse spell. This halts the effects but does not reverse them - the curse can only be completely cured by a wish spell. Mechanical effects are as follows and are cumulative until the transformation is complete:

First week: skin toughens and back hardens (+1 bonus to AC)
Second week: back curves and hunches (+1 bonus to AC, -2 DEX, -2 CHA)
Third week: mouth forms into beak (gets an extra bite attack doing d3 damage)
Fourth week: back hunches further and hardens into a carapace (+1 AC, -2 to hit)
Fifth week: limbs stiffen and standing becomes difficult (+3 damage from strength, -2 to hit)
Sixth week: character becomes a tortoise, without the ability to function in human society - though he or she retains sentience.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Focusing the Mind, and the Tea Shop of the Bilious Tongues

Writing blog entries on my mobile phone is a horrendous experience. Partly this is in the nature of writing on a small screen, but mostly it's because of the design flaws of the Sony Experia, or Xperia, or whatever the fuck it's called, which requires the user to have thumbs the width of chopsticks to type with anything remotely resembling accuracy. (My favourite element of this is the way, if you don't hit the precise pixel in the exact centre of the space bar, the phone construes your key press as a full stop. I just love it when that happens, and react with giddy, fond laughter each time it does.)

Anyway, this will likely mean all entries for the short-term future will be of laser-like intensity as I attempt to get my point across with the minimum amount of typing. To wit:

A Yellow City Tea Shop

The Tea Shop of the Bilious Tongues is an establishment that has become popular with bored youths from the higher echelons of Yellow City slug-man society. They congregate there to delight in the experience of being insulted by humans - an invigorating experience which thrills them with its unexpected, taboo-like nature.

All of the servers at the Tea Shop are humans addicted to the Spiteful Command, an opiate with the unfortunate side-effect of causing the user to drop caustic and biting remarks into the conversation apparently at random - usually about some nearby person's appearance or demeanour. Young slug-man customers revel in this and pay huge fees merely to slip behind the beaded curtain in the vestibule - to the despair and disgust of their older, staider brethren.

It is considered bad sport to enact vengeance on a server at the tea shop for a remark made; a sign on the door reminds customers that this is a place where the normal rules of Yellow City etiquette do not apply. This does not prevent the occasional server washing up in the God River on a misty morning with his throat cut and tongue sliced out.