Monday 28 September 2015

Why does the new guy know the PCs?

You know the scene. A new player has joined the group. He has his PC all rolled up. Now he just needs to have a reason to be there. What I typically do is to either: a) avoid thinking about it and act as though the new PC was there all along; b) let the PCs think up a reason. What is really needed is a table.

The "Who Is This Guy?" Table

1. The ultra-competitive younger sibling of a randomly determined PC, who is determined to outdo him or her
2. Somebody who owes gambling debts to one of the PCs and has joined up to pay the debts off
3. Somebody who thinks he or she is in love with a randomly determined PC and is following him or her everywhere
4. The protective older sibling of a randomly determined PC, sent to watch over him or her
5. Somebody who challenged one of the PCs to a duel; the PCs "liked his style"
6. A local dreamer who saw the PCs, recognised they were adventurers, and begged to be allowed to come along
7. A spy sent by an enemy of the PCs who has befriended them in a pub
8. Somebody who mysteriously looks exactly the same as one of the PCs; it's too much of a coincidence not to join forces
9. Somebody who is convinced one of the PCs is an avatar of a god/a messiah/a prophet and is determined to follow
10. Somebody who needs money to ransom a kidnapped relative and has begged the PCs if he/she can come adventuring with them
11. A stooge of the local ruler who insists on following the PCs everywhere to report on what they are doing
12. One of the hirelings who insists that he have a full share of loot if he/she proves his/her worth

Thursday 24 September 2015

[Actual Play] Cruth Lowlands Campaign: Session 2 - The Debacle at the Riverside

The second session of the Cruth Lowlands Campaign took place earlier today. For a recap of the first session, see here.

  • Jason, playing Mixahâm Straji, a 1st level magic user
  • Patrice, playing Marm Jo'a, a 2nd level cleric
  • Luke, playing Andy, a 2nd level fighter
  • Brian, playing Core, a 1st level dwarf
The PCs began the session back in Riverfork with a considerable amount of cash in their possession and nowhere to put it. For a while they discussed burying it, or taking it back to the caves around the Achelos Fort; all they were sure about was that they didn't want to give it to any bankers. Eventually they bought a wagon and some mules to carry it all around with them, with a rough plan of making it to Luln where they thought there was a merchant's guild who could take care of it. They also kitted themselves out with better armour, and bought long swords for the three river bandits they had recruited, but they decided not to arm their hirelings any better in case there was a revolt. One of the hirelings, Eusebius, seemed to have set himself up as a kind of shop steward to represent the hirelings' interests, and the PCs were keen to keep the hirelings as weak as possible.

Mixahâm went to the Guild of Sages with his killer frog innards and was given a recipe by a sage called Iappas for a magic potion that could be made from the frog's liver. He also agreed to give Mixahâm further recipes in future if he agreed to share any rare animal organs he found. Mixahâm went away and brewed up three potions of something mysterious.

There was some discussion of going back to the tunnels around Achelos Fort, but ultimately the players plumped for going to the Temple of the Elements, where the monk Milos had previously made a job offer. Milos met them and offered to pay them to destroy a newly re-inhabited shrine to the old God, Cronus, which the priests at the temple could "feel" was nearby. After some haggling the PCs were offered 250 gp per person for finding the shrine, plus 3000 gp shared between them if they destroyed it. Milos also said they could rely on the Temple of Elements for healing their ailments in future if they carried out the mission.

The PCs agreed and headed off to the village of Lithakia, which they were informed might have followers of Cronus present. There they discovered the villagers kept a herd of wild boar as guards (which were categorically not for sale) and that there was a small temple to the god Apollo. They also heard tell of a famous hunter called Anacreon, who they found in the forests nearby. They asked Anacreon if he knew anything about Cronus (definitely not) and asked if there were any ancient shrines nearby. He took them to a few caves on a river bank which he said had housed a shrine in days past. The river was 10 yards wide and at the bottom of a rocky cleft or ravine about 10 feet deep; the caves were on the opposite side.

Convinced they had found their goal, the PCs headed back to Lithakia. They were suspicious that the villagers may be Cronus-worshipers, in cahoots with whoever was at the river shrine. Marm, as a cleric, was appointed spokesman and went to talk to the local priest, a man called Spyridon. Marm attempted to bluff Spyridon into giving away information by pretending to be a servant of Cronus himself. He quickly ascertained that the villagers were definitely not Apollo worshipers and that Spyridon was a priest of Cronus in secret. Spyridon said that he would trust Marm if, after dark, he partook in a ritual. This turned out to involve taking a sickle and carving an hourglass shape into his own chest. Marm took the sickle and, instead, cut Spyridon's throat. He then ransacked the village shrine and discovered strange spices, silk, and furs. 

Cleaning up all the blood and covering himself in silk and furs, Marm went back to meet the others and told them that they would have to leave early in the morning, pretty sharpish. He, Core and Mixahâm then decided to try to set light to some of the spices they had found in the temple and breathe in the smoke. This turned out to cause strange hallucinations. Mixahâm successfully saved against magic and Core simply hallucinated that he was a child, but Marm had a hideous vision of being sucked away from his body to meet a coloured snake, who commanded him to kill Sir Iannis, the ruler of Riverfork. This turned out to be a Geas, and Marm would die within d4 weeks if he did not carry out the quest. 

The next day dawned and the PCs headed back to the river shrine with Marm seemingly distracted and morose, and Core gibbering on enthusiastically and childishly. At the river, Andy clambered down with a raft the PCs had bought the previous day from the villagers in an effort to swim across. He was immediately showered with arrows from the caves on the opposite side and fled back to the others with a flesh wound. 

The PCs were now sure they had found the Cronus shrine but had to come up with a plan. After a protracted discussion it was agreed that one group would chop down a tree and use it as a bridge to get to the other side of the river and then abseil down into the caves from above. Another group, the amphibious assault team, would head upstream for a bit and then swim down to attack the caves simultaneously. The river bandits and Marm volunteered for this mission.

Meanwhile Mixahâm did some scouting downstream and drank one of his mystery magic potions. This turned out to be a climbing potion, turning his fingers into sucker pads. [This was entirely through luck: we rolled for the magic effect at the time the potion was created, but I didn't tell him what it would be until he drank it.] He used this to climb, spider-man-like, around the cliffs, and discovered another cave - but this contained a lookout who quickly ran deeper into the tunnels.

Before the tree chopping could really begin, Core heard some commotion coming from the forest behind them. The PCs immediately realised that this would be the villagers of Lithakia, who would by now surely have discovered Spyridon's corpse. Realising they were in serious trouble, they eventually fled behind a vast firestorm they created with flaming oil - but not before Core was almost killed by more arrows after trying to storm the caves one last time.

They regrouped at Riverfork feeling pretty sorry for themselves. At this point Marm decided to tell the others about his vision and the Geas quest to kill Sir Iannis. They knew that Sir Iannis had at least 200 men-at-arms in his keep, plus a dozen knights and at least one magic-user, so they knew this was likely to be a suicide mission. But they reasoned that they may have a week or two in which to plan for this. Asking around, they discovered that in a week's time a tournament was due to be held in the Black Eagle Barony to the South, and thought that this might be an opportunity to get a shot at killing Sir Iannis.

Thus ended the session. Another enjoyable one even if the PCs suffered quite a set-back. They are getting to know more of the local actors, and there was some good role playing too. I'll be interested to see if they can pull off destroying the Cronus shrine, and what will happen with Marm's Geas. Patrice was pretty unlucky with that. As soon as the players made the decision to 'smoke' Spyridon's spices I decided it was an opportunity to use the Yoon-Suin hallcinogen table, and Patrice just rolled really badly on it. But it should prove to be nothing if not an interesting development... 

Monday 21 September 2015

The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it.

Hear ye, hear ye! Monsters & Manuals is 1000 posts old. Hear ye!

That's right. 1000 posts. Since the blog's innocent and humble beginnings it has amassed somewhere in the region of 1.1 million page views and 11,175 comments. The most popular post by page views is this (thanks I think in large part to reddit); the most commented-on is this.

While I feel a great sense of gratitude for all the readers of the blog, especially those kind enough to comment, I do at the same time have a bitter-sweet feeling thinking back on the 7 1/2 years or so since the blog began. When I started writing this blog, it felt like we were just at the cusp of something. It was the spring of 2008. The world was young. Gary Gygax had recently died. D&D 4e was shortly to be released. I had recently discovered online discussion of RPGs, and was one of those people who was to some extent radicalised by these events - that, and by discussions taking place on, therpgsite, blogs like Grognardia and web resources like Philotomy's Musings (now sadly defunct but resurrected here by the inimitable Ramanan Sivaranjan). It felt like something was happening. All you had to do to be a part of it was to start a blog and begin sharing.

Eventually people started talking about the "OSR". I never liked that expression and have never felt like part of it, if it was ever a movement at all. I prefer thinking of that period simply as an era in which people really started realising they could just do things for themselves, and were encouraging each other to do it. (Trailblazers like Ron Edwards and, later, James Raggi of course deserve special plaudits.)

I don't think I'm alone in thinking that a lot has changed since those days. Much of it for the better. There is a wealth of great stuff out there. People are producing work that simply never would have been conceived possible in the 1990s or earlier. RPGs are no longer dependent on an "industry" or gatekeepers. Talented people have opportunities they never would have previously.

And yet, and yet. The movement which some people call "the OSR" has matured, and with maturity enthusiasm becomes tempered into something more like appreciation. There is a lot out there that I appreciate. But the sense of excitement that I had in 2008 has largely disappeared. I like what is happening. I don't feel as energised by it as I did. Just like a relationship between two people mellows with time, so has my relationship with the cultural flowering that began in 2008. It's a part of my life, but has shifted away from its centre a little.

More specifically, I feel sad about blogging. Blogs are still being written, commented on, and read. But the discourse has moved in large part on to G+. Blogs already have the scent of "old tech" about them. They are being overtaken by trends which are visible everywhere: a movement towards the ephemeral, the sound-bitey, and the private. Blog posts are often long and nuanced, they are public, and they have a sense of permanence. G+ posts are short, punchy, and quickly forgotten, and they are confined to those who the writer wants them to be read by. I like G+ and can see its uses, but I see in it a tendency to argument and twitter-esque trading of hateful insults that has never been a major feature of RPG blogs and comments.

The halcyon days of 2008 are not long ago in the grand scheme of things, but in many ways it feels like another world. In some ways that's because a lot has happened in my own life since then (moving countries, marriage, natural disaster, the roller-coaster that is 7 years of an adult life); when I started the blog I was 27 and living and working as a translator in Japan - I'm now 34 and living and working as an academic in North East England. But I think even without all that personal change I'd still notice that there's a sense of cultural shift across that period, and that as with any major change things had been lost along the way. A sense of being part of something new, and a feeling that there was a great deal that needed to be said.

Friday 18 September 2015

[Actual Play] Cruth Lowlands Campaign: Session 1

As an effort to get out of my own head when it comes to RPGs (haven't run or played anything in weeks; focusing too much on a follow-up to Yoon-Suin to the extent that it is robbing the process of any joy) I have started a no-pressure game of Rules Cyclopedia D&D via Google hangouts and roll 20. After years of essentially creating entirely my own stuff, from settings to bestiaries to dungeons, the philosophy of the Cruth Lowlands campaign is: use plenty of pre-existing materials, don't worry about things making sense particularly, and run things straight from the book as much as possible. In other words, it's a game of paradigmatic D&D. It's set in the Known World, in the West of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos - the region around Riverfork Keep. I have populated the map (see below) with plenty of locations (approximately 25), of which most are hidden, although I may also introduce some classic modules into the mix.

I am going to post Actual Plays of the campaign on the blog. For the first session, I was joined by three players;

  • Jason, playing Mixahâm Straji, a 1st level magic user
  • Patrice, playing Marm Jo'a, a 1st level cleric
  • Luke, playing Andy, a 1st level fighter

The PCs started off in The Bull Rushes, an inn in Riverfork owned by a bullywug called Yokomosok. Yokomosok noticed they seemed like "adventurers", and they got into a conversation in which Yokomosok told them he sometimes directed "adventurers" towards various locations where they might find fame, glory, wealth, and so on. One such place was the Worm's Mouth, a network of tunnels a day to the East. Another was the Achelos Fort, a holdfast which used to be garrisoned by a knight and men-at-arms from Riverfork, but which had in recent decades been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. There were said to be tunnels underneath. The Worm's Mouth was quite well known, but the tunnels under Achelos Fort were largely secret. 

The PCs struck a deal with Yokomosok that they would give him "interesting items" recovered from these locations if he agreed not to tell any other adventurers about Achelos Fort, and decided they would try to keep it secret and possibly even establish it as a base camp. They then set about attracting hirelings, and employed a grand total of five: Eusebius (fat and greedy, net), Menelaus (says "yes" all the time, hand axe), Christina (big nose, spear), Loulia (pet rat, hand axe) and Procopius (goitre, whip). In the meantime, Marm Jo'a went to the Temple of the Elements, a cult of Zeus in Riverfork, to chat to the monks. He met one named Milos, who told him that if he came back in a few days there may be employment opportunities.

The gang then set of for Achelos Fort the next morning. On arrival, they discovered an empty shell of a tower, with the River Achelos running along nearby at the bottom of a ravine. They noticed that there were caves at the bottom of the ravine on the opposite side, and decided to rappel down the cliff side and cross the river to investigate. Leaving Procopius and Menelaus to watch over the tower in case anybody came out to cut the rope while they were rappelling, they abseiled down to the cliff bottom and discovered there were also caves on their side of the ravine. They investigated these and discovered that one held the concealed remains of a boat and jetty, while another contained a sack buried in sand, containing a gold pendant and 100 gold pieces.

They noticed that the caves on the opposite bank of the river extended inwards some distance, and decided to investigate. This meant crossing a ford in the river. However, when about to cross they saw an eel lurking in the water, and sent Eusebius with his net to catch it (concluding that he must be a fisherman since he had a net). Eusebius approached the water but after casting his net went into a kind of paralytic spasm and fell down on the sand. After he recovered they concluded the eel must be electric; it also emerged that actually Eusebius wasn't a fisherman - he just had a net.

Andy had brought two chickens along with him, and they set up a cunning decoy for the eel using one of the birds, tempting it away from the ford and then killing it with ranged weapons. The chicken, however, seemed to decide that its future with the group was likely to be short, and made a run for it.

The group entered one of the caves on the opposite bank, using the remaining chicken to walk in front of them and set off any possible traps. Here, they discovered a trip-wire and bell system and disabled it, and pressed on. Eventually the passage they were on hooked back on itself and they stumbled across another trip wire, this time setting off the bell it was attached to. Immediately they heard a commotion up ahead and discovered a killer frog, which was attached to the cave wall by a chain. It did serious damage to poor Eusebius, but was finished off with missile weapons.

While this was going on Andy luckily heard a noise from behind them, and they realised that whoever inhabited the caves was alerted to their presence. They cunningly (again) used the chicken as a distraction, placing it around a curve in the tunnel with a lit torch next to it, and then hiding in the darkness nearby. Four brigand-ish men appeared and started examining the chicken; everybody charged out of the darkness to attack. One of the brigands was killed and the others fled; Marm Jo'a followed them outside and killed another, but the others entered the river and swam off. While this was going on, Mixahâm was busy dissecting the killer frog and removing its internal organs for alchemical purposes.

After regrouping, the party realised that the brigands had come from a secret door - an artificial wall they had walked past previously and which was now revealed. Investigating behind it they discovered some tiled rooms carved into the rock. They also - again - were lucky enough to overhear somebody whispering around a corner, and after a brief discussion of tactics charged around it to discover 7 brigands waiting for them in  room at a bottom of a staircase with spears and slings. But the brigands proved woefully inept in combat [6 attacks were made on Andy in the surprise round, without causing I think a single hp of damage] and three were rapidly killed; the rest surrendered.

After a brief torture scene the leader of the bandits revealed the location of his loot, under a trap door in a nearby room. Marm and Andy then hit on the idea of giving the other three captured bandits the opportunity to join them as hirelings. They agreed, and then revealed that their now ex-leader was laying a trap for Andy and that the trap door did contain loot, but also poisonous centipedes. You can imagine what happened next - the leader was fed to the centipedes, the centipedes were then killed, and the party recovered 2,000 gp and a small sack containing 14 semi-precious gems.

It was now the end of the day and they decided to stay in the caves and go back to Riverfort the next day after doing some more scouting. There was another tunnel a hundred yards or so down the river bank and they wanted to take a look inside. Despite being warned by the superstitious bandits about the place, they ventured in, discovering a large chamber with one clearly artificial wall and a thick iron door. Concluding that "This is where we die", they beat a hasty retreat and went back to Riverfork.

An impressive haul of 2,100 gp was bolstered after they took their other ill-gotten gains to a dwarf called Squinter and a halfling called Sauce; it turned out the gold pendant they had found initially was worth 1,000 gp, and the semi-precious stones were worth 3,000 gp in total. 6,100 gp split three ways was more than enough for Marm Jo'a and Andy to level-up, although they did have to pay 25% in tax to the tax collectors of Sir Iannis, the castellan of Riverfork. Mixahâm also kept back four of the semi-precious stones to use to pay any magic-user he might find who would tell him what to do with the killer frog innards he had taken.

Thus ended the session. It was a lot of fun gaming with three nice fellas. They were a pretty wily crew and thought their way through or around everything they came across, so 6,100 gp was a fair reward, but they were also very lucky with their dice rolls at times - with attack rolls and surprise rolls in particular, but also with crucial morale checks on the part of the bandits. I was amused that after having dealt with the bandits so easily, a mere iron door was enough to make them conclude that "This is where we die." I also learned a lot about the value of chickens. 

Tune in next week for the next installment of.....The Cruth Lowlands Campaign.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

The Nine Guardians of the Mountain to the Moon

The Ancients left a guardian in each of the nine levels of the Mountain to the Moon. Only their names are known in Utolso Varos; some old people still half-remember nursery rhymes in which they feature - all except The Last of Them, of whom no rhymes were ever told. 

1 – The Duke of Doves
2 – The Creeping Calm
3 – The Cold Light of Day
4 – The Silent Maw
5 – The Weapons of Glass
6 – The Thirsty Lady
7 – The Tower
8 – The Chained Prince
9 - The Last of Them

Monday 7 September 2015

Paradigmatic D&D, Or: A Verbeeg, Grell, Ankheg and Orog walk into a bar...

I don't think it is controversial to say that one of the great side-effects of the creative flowering that is the OSR is what people have done with settings. Whether it's Corpathium, the Swordfish IslandsCenterraHMS ApollyonStraits of Anian, the implied setting of Deep Carbon Observatory or Carcosa, wherever you look people are redefining what a D&D setting is "supposed to" look like in new and interesting ways.

And yet. And yet. I feel a deep and abiding longing when I flick through the AD&D 2nd edition DMG, Monstrous Manual, or BECMI Rules Cyclopedia, for the many worlds - all unique and yet all so very alike - which DMs have created and run for their groups down the decades and which all drew from that same soup of basic ingredients: elves in the forests, dwarves in the mountains, storm giants and golden dragons, grell and illithids, gnolls and ettercaps, ankhegs, thri-kreen, githyanki and mimics. We are free from the tyranny of generic D&D world building nowadays, but like an old Bulgarian man who looks back at his youth and feels a sense of unjustified nostalgia for how things were under the Communists, so I can't help but sometimes think there is an eternal charm in the implied settings of the 1980s. Running a game in a simulacrum of Mystara, as so many people did, is to be free from the pressure or need to be interesting. The melange of cultural influences which together comprised "D&D-land circa 1987-1994" are like a comfortable, warm blanket to swathe yourself in; a big, bland, cottage pie to eat; a pint of John Smith's at the pub; a song by The Beatles. It isn't particularly interesting because you already know it intimately, but it is wholesome and enjoyable for all that.

Like most RPG bloggers, I am guilty of overcomplicating things at times. I am on an apparently unending quest to try to do something new. That has its virtues, but I can't help but feel overwhelmed by a yearning for the simplicity of yesteryear sometimes. Or, to put it another way, the enduring naff-ness of the Keith Parkinson image below calls to me in a way that is more than a little embarrassing but cannot be denied.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Utolso Varos, The Last City, and the Mountain to the Moon

Longstanding readers may remember Utolso Varos, The Last City. I did some more thinking about it the other night. It was late and I was tired, but here are the results:

In case you can't read my handwriting, the main paragraph reads "Central mountain is the megadungeon. Ascending rather than descending. Leads up to the moon. The ancient escape route of the Old Ones."

A recap of Utolso Varos:

This, as the name suggests, is the last city on earth, and mankind has retreated to it as the world grows old and fades, and life for human beings becomes hostile. 
Like Nessus or Viriconium, Utolso Varos is almost collapsing under the weight of its own history. It is many thousands of years old, and feels it - it is decadent, listless, and resigned, although it still possesses a faded and elegant sort of beauty. It is situated on an island in the middle of a great inland sea, and beyond that sea is the wild, dying earth...scattered with the ruins and remnants of the civilizations of aeons past. 
The earth has become so old that its very existence has become tattered and frayed. Time passes slowly, and the light of the sun has become flat and dull. Alien spirits and demonic things from other realities slip through the decaying fragmentary boundaries between their worlds and ours. Those who can practice magic hoard it, as if it might protect them from the inevitable end of all things. Gradually the human race dwindles, and history turns its face away. 

My development of this idea is that in the centre of the city is a mountain that leads all the way to the Moon. Realising that their earth was dying, the people of the ancient civilisation who founded the city built a pathway up to the sky in an effort to escape. They then mostly traveled up this mountain to the moon and disappeared (who knows where?), leaving behind them only tattered remnants who evolved into the society that remains there now.

The mountain to the moon is thus a network of tunnels and pathways which is populated by the belongings and sentinels of the Old Ones which they left behind on their great exodus. But, in addition to that, alien things which later discovered the Moon have been descending through those tunnels and pathways and to the city below, with unpredictable consequences.

The Sad Power of Offence

I suspect people reading this will be familiar with the latest DriveThruRPG controversy. But in brief, a rather silly person or group of persons recently created and released a game with a controversy-courting title to do with rape; a fuss was kicked-up in various social media circles about the offensiveness of said title; and as a result DriveThruRPG now has an "Offensive Content Policy". In essence, this policy is to suspend titles from being sold if anybody reports them as "offensive", pending a review by staff.

I don't think there is a particular need to make arguments from a soap box about this. Anybody using words like "censorship" and "freedom of speech" in this context does not really understand the nature of those things; OneBookShelf is perfectly entitled to do as it sees fit with respect to its market and customer base - even if I personally disagree with the decision.

I am more interested in this case as a kind of paradigm example of how being offended has taken on great power in late modernity. In our age, there is almost nothing as rhetorically and politically powerful as the ability to say, with credibility, that this thing offends me. It defines what can and cannot be said on university campuses. It decides what companies can and cannot do to advertise their products and services. It gets Nobel Prize-winning scientists hounded out of their professions for making badly judged jokes. It gets politicians sacked because they said intemperate things when they were students. The rush to seek offence - and to demand action about it - is one of the most significant sociological developments of my lifetime. In the early decades of the 21st Century taking offence is a weapon and victimhood is a trophy. Battles are fought and lost through strategic applications of accusations of micro-aggression and trigger warning. The winners are those who feel a sense of outrage the most keenly and shout about it the loudest; the losers are humiliated and forced to repent. What matters is not truth, but whether words and opinions can be repositioned as sins.

The desire to have the world arrange itself to one's own needs and preferences, to never have to confront anything disagreeable and to be outraged at the prospect of doing so, is an infantile one. It's the desire of the powerless for protection - only somebody who lacks control of their emotions feels the need for it. An adult comfortable in his or her own skin knows that taking offence is a choice that you make. A child doesn't have the power to prevent himself making it.

So I view this latest development as sad, more than anything, because it shows the extent to which a large minority of people in the world of RPGs, just like in all walks of life, are not comfortable in their own skins. They not only aren't in a position of control over their emotions, they don't even want to be, or see anything wrong with that. I think that says something deeply troubling about the society in which we find ourselves - it's a society of people who don't aspire towards self-command but aspire towards ever-more ostentatious displays of outrage in order to exert power over those around them. It's like an inverted existentialism: Sartre's "we are left alone, without excuse" transformed to a world in which there is always an excuse - our emotions are never our own, but the fault of somebody other. Foucault would undoubtedly have had a field day with it, but I've never understood enough about him to figure out what he'd say.