Tuesday 27 October 2015

The Adventurous History of The Mandarin and His Six Wives

Things are a bit tough at the moment so blogging will be light. But a trawl through a local antique shop turned up this book the other day, and at £2 it would have been rude not to buy it. Billed on the back as "the most famous of all Chinese classic novels" (though I'd never heard of it), it was apparently suppressed because of its "detailed descriptions of love-making and erotic fantasies" (phwoar). It centres on the life of Hsi Men ("a corrupt and amorous mandarin who dies of an overdose of aphrodisiacs") and his dissolute friends ("nine wild, smooth-tongued, useless fellows who kept him company in his debaucheries"). It is, it seems, relevant to my interests.

The eccentrically capitalised chapter headings are worth the price of admission alone. Here are some examples (the last is my favourite):

"While in his Cups Lai Wang talks himself into Perdition. Lotus Petal swallows Shame and hangs herself twice."
"Grass Snake and Road Rat administer a Thrashing to Doctor Bamboo Hill. Mistress Ping is inflamed with a renewed Passion for Hsi Men."
"Master Han makes the Dead live again in his Picture. The Groom Shu Tung secretly departs with swelling Sails."
"Gold Lotus abandons herself to a Slave. Astrologer Liu aids her with his Magic and does a good Stroke of Business for himself."

Monday 19 October 2015

Underworld Fortresses

This is a prototype for New Troy. It is an underworld location. As with Yoon-Suin, I am taking a tool-kit approach: there will be pieces of blank dungeon maps which the DM can position and fill-in as he or she likes. Each piece or template can then have its nature randomly generated.

For some reason blogger isn't displaying the table correctly when I preview it. You get the idea.

Great Fortress

Eldjotnar and hrimthursar rule the deepest parts of the underworld in their great fortresses of stone. Their struggles are unending. In summer the eldjotnar reign in flames and heat and the hrimthursar hide in isolated places. In winter the frost and cold of the hrimthursar has dominion and the eldjotnars’ power diminishes to nothing. In between there is constant war. Each stronghold changes hands, back and forth, with the passing of the seasons – the only constancy being the thickness and strength of the great stone walls, and the temporary nature of the allegiance of the thralls, which shifts like a sapling in the wind.

A Great Fortress is ruled by d3 giants (eldjotnar in summer; hrimthursar in winter; roll to determine in spring/autumn), who may be lovers, family members, comrades, or rivals. There are 1d100 loyal niflungar or rjufendr per giant. The fortress also has a population of thralls (in d3 groups), whose allegiance changes depending on who controls it.    

Use a Great Fortress template to plot out its layout, or create your own.

Thralls (1d3)
Summer/Winter Event
Spring/Autumn Event
Landvaettir (1d30x3)
The giants are reinforcing their fortress and the thralls are extra-vigilant (never surprised)
The rulers have all been killed in battle, leaving the fortress in anarchy
Lindworms (1d12)
The giants are away at war or hunting
The fortress has struck by an earthquake, flooding areas with lava
Dvergar (1d30x3)
A false sense of security prevails and the thralls are complacent (always surprised)
Large sections of the fortress have been reduced to rubble
Berzerkers (1d30x3)
A group of captives have arrived from a raid on the upper world
The fortress has been taken over by a dragon in its weakness
Trolls (1d12)
The fortress is plagued by a shadow walker
One of the groups of thralls is plotting rebellion
Hamingja (1d30x3)
A great feast is being held
The fortress has been flooded by melting ice
Saehrimnir (1d12)
The giants are plotting an attack on the upper world
The fortress is under siege by the opposite side
Ettins (1d30x3)
The fortress is at peace and rich in treasure (roll twice when determining treasure)
Enemy patrols in the area are seeking to employ spies or assassins
Thurse (1d12)
One of the giants has come under the sway of a Dis, who is now the real ruler
The fortress is divided equally between eldjotnar and hrimthursar
Roll again, double population
A group of einherjar have come from the glorious afterlife to do battle
There is civil war amongst the rulers (roll again if only one ruler)

Treasure Types: A, L, M, N, O

Friday 16 October 2015

About A Great Painting

This is my favourite fantasy picture - as much as you can ever have a genuine favourite piece of art, book, film, song, etc. It's John Howe's painting of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it's been my home desktop wallpaper for a long time. I never get tired of looking at it.

I think partly this is just because the landscape is reminiscent of the kind of landscapes which I love and am often hiking or camping in: brooding, desolate moors. It feels like a stylised, approximation of somewhere wild in the British Isles, and if you like that sort of thing, the picture resonates.

I like the way Gawain's shield stands out - the stark white pentangle against black, set against the muted and predominantly green background. To me it's visually but also conceptually striking: the Green Knight is part of nature, almost as one with the background; the knight Sir Gawain is most certainly not.

I also love how Howe refuses to grandstand, which is a hallmark of his work in general: there's no melodrama. Rather the opposite. Sir Gawain looks almost nonchalant as he chats to the Green Knight. Something is going on, of course, but at the same time, it's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things - the world is as it is and always will be, whatever happens. In that sense the atmosphere of the painting reminds me of Bruegel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in the way it renders a profound myth humble.

This is reinforced by the horse over there in the bottom left corner. I love that horse. It has no interest in Green Knights, beheadings, struggles for power, broken promises. It's cold and lonely and all it wants is shelter. The painting is as much as, if not more, about the horse than anything else. An animal at the whim of man, dragged along on a quest, but still with its own quiet animal concerns. The picture says a lot about man and nature, and seems to my mind to reconsider how that theme is treated in the original poem, which of course contrasts the chaos of nature with the orderliness of human chivalry. The picture shows man as an interloper in the natural order of things, and his presence is ambiguous rather than ordering: the viewer's sympathy is not so much with the knight but with his poor old horse.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Odes to a Glacier Dungeon

It's been a long time since I inflicted some of my crappy art on the readers of this blog. (That's probably because I draw a picture of anything about once a year on average.) As an added bonus, this post also complains crappy poetry. I felt a strong need to write some haiku about a glacier dungeon.

It's a picture of "The Devil's Tongue", which is a glacier flowing into the sea. In the foreground you see the sea itself, full of icebergs. To the East and West of the ice face, where the glacier tumbles into the sea, are cold rocky beaches. The glacier itself cuts through mountains. In order to get into the ice caves inside it, adventurers must climb up the ice face into one of two entrances ("The Hag's Tunnel" and "The Old Sack Pit") or hike across the surface and enter through a crevasse in its top. This may result in death; I have the climbing rules worked out, and the next step is hypothermia.

The Tongue

The Tongue is cold white
Under white snow, whiter ice
So white yet so blue

Cold imbued with cold
The cold wind cannot enter
The cold wind which howls

The Tongue needs no warmth
The sun peers down impotent
From the cold white sky

Monday 12 October 2015

An Incomplete List of Glacier Dungeon Inhabitants

A while ago I had an idea for a megadungeon that was carved into a giant glacier or ice shelf, dozens of miles thick. As well as the normal inhabitants of a dungeon, PCs would have to deal with the brutal cold and environmental hazards such as collapses and so forth. I'm fairly sure I discussed it on this episode of A Gaming Podcast About Nothing; but in any event it's what I want to run when Patrick finally finishes The Veins of the Earth, using his cave system rules for icy ones.

Apropos of that, here is an incomplete list of glacier dungeon inhabitants. These are things that are either explicitly arctic/mountain/ice based, or logically should be so. (Monsters like crab-men should definitely be there: some of the biggest crabs in the world are found in the Arctic Ocean.)

Straight from the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual

Beholder and relatives
Cave fisher
Displacer Beast
Red Dragon
White Dragon
Amethyst Dragon
Crystal Dragon
Silver Dragon
Deep Dragon
Mercury Dragon
Mountain Dwarf
Galeb Duhr
Cloud Giant
Frost Giant
Mountain Giant
Hook horror
Ice mephit
Mind Flayer
White Pudding
Selkie (in glacial lakes)
Ice toad
Ice troll
Winter Wolf
Purple Worm
Giant bloodworm

Non-existent at this time but formed by putting the word 'ice' in front of a Monstrous Manual creature

Ice derro
Ice duergar
Ice drow
Ice marid
Ice ghoul
Ice ghost
Ice sverfneblin
Ice spriggan
Ice goblin
Ice hag
Ice lich
Ice werebear (were polar bear)
Ice medusa
Ice merrow (in glacial lakes)
Ice skeleton
Ice spectre
Ice sphinx
Ice vampire
Ice wight
Ice wraith
Ice xorn
Ice zombie

Straight from the Planescape Monstrous Compendia

Frost salamander
Ice paraelemental


Since, as any fule know, hell is a place of cold and ice, in the lower regions of the great ice glacier there will also be encountered demons and devils, who slip in from the Abyss or the Nine Hells. Also, magical constructs and undead can also make appearances.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Fuyit-Xa, the Wandering Sorceress of the Mountains of the Moon

Nobody has ever seen Fuyit-Xa in the full. At most can be seen a withered hand, a wizened face, a scrawny silhouette appearing in the window of her howdah. On the back of her giant tortoise steed she has roamed the high valleys and passes of the Mountains of the Moon for longer than anyone can remember; if she has aged at all in that span of time, it is only to grow slightly thinner and more wraith-like - sometimes she sinks so far into her howdah that she cannot be seen at all.

Her constant companion is the spirit of her long-dead daughter, Fuyit-Li. Li was beheaded for her crimes and on her death became a druj; she still to this day inhabits her own skull, which her mother took from the site of her execution. It sits on a cushion in a smaller howdah on the tortoise's back, and is lovingly polished and preserved by her mother's familiars. These are The Crow and The Drake, which serve as Xa's eyes and ears beyond the confines of her howdah.

Fuyit-Xa, 15th Level Magic-User

HP: 34
AC: 9

Typical spells prepared: Hold Portal, Sleep, Magic Missile, Detect Magic, Shield, Detect Invisible, ESP, Phantasmal Force, Web, Locate Object, Hold Person, Lightning Bolt, Protection from Normal Missiles, Dispel Magic, Confusion, Polymorph Other, Wall of Fire, Wall of Ice, Cloudkill, Conjure Elemental, Telekinesis, Wall of Iron, Death Spell, Create Normal Monsters.

Magic Items/Treasure: Staff of Commanding (12 charges), Ring of Seeing, Ring of Safety, Ring of Truth, jade necklace (worth 3,000 gp), electrum anklet studded with 6 opals (worth 8,000 gp); two bronze bracelets studded with topaz (worth 1,000 gp each).

Fuyit-Li, Skull Druj

AC: -4
HP: 86
#ATT: 1
DMG: 2d4

Special abilities: Immune to spells below 4th level; immune to weapons of less than +2 enchantment; attacks to poison (save vs. death); spoils all food, holy water and potions within 30'; sees invisible; can cast Darkness, 15' Radius, Silence, 15' Radius, Cause Disease, Animate Dead, Finger of Death 1/round at will; can create three temporary clones to attack enemies

The Crow, Familiar

AC: 3
HP: 8
#ATT: 1
DMG: d2

Special: Always wins initiative; can attack the eyes (-4 to hit; successful attack causes permanent blindness)

The Drake, Familiar

AC: 0
HP: 18
#ATT: 3
DMG: 1d2/1d2/1d6

Special: Can polymorph into human form at will; immune to spells below 4th level

The Tortoise

AC: -3
HP: 76
#ATT: 1
DMG: 2d8

(Hat tip: Greg Gorgonmilk for the photo.)

Monday 5 October 2015

On Caves

I went walking along a local beach the other day and discovered some caves. Naturally, I took a look inside; some of them stretched back a good 20 yards or so.

Despite the fact that it was reasonably good weather and the beach was busy with dog walkers and sea kayakers, and it was the middle of the day, it was nonetheless easy to be reminded that human beings are not made for life in dark places. More or less as soon as you enter a cave like this, you are out of your comfort zone: you can't see, it smells wrong, you feel disorientated and directionless, and there is a vague sense of irrational fear that something may be lurking in the hidden depths.

I think part of D&D's success can be explained by the fact that there is something visceral about the concept of being underground, in the dark, where there are monsters. We can all envisage how strange and disconcerting it is not to be able to see and not to be able to sense, in little subconscious ways, where you are and which direction you are going - through things like the direction of the wind, the position of the sun, or distant sounds. Instead you feel entombed, shut in, and your mind can't help but speculate that there is danger lurking somewhere near. Everybody understands that kind of experience: we know what it is like to be afraid and alone somewhere dark.

Would RPGs have been successful if the first RPG had been Traveller, or Vampire: the Masquerade. Possibly. But I think one of the reasons for D&D's intrinsic appeal is the fact that it is about dungeons: there is something primal there people get when they hear about it.

Thursday 1 October 2015

[Actual Play] Cruth Lowlands Campaign: Session 3 - Do You Want to See My 18" Ebony Wand?

The third session of the Cruth Lowlands Campaign took place this afternoon. For previous sessions, see here.

  • Patrice, playing Marm Jo'a, a 2nd level cleric 
  • Luke, playing Andy, a 2nd level fighter 
  • Brian, playing Core, a 1st level dwarf

This week Jason was unavailable so Mixahâm bowed out; we decided he was spending a few days conducting more research into monster-organ-based alchemy.

The session started with the players back in Riverfork, licking their wounds and keen to get revenge on the Cronus cult on the River Magos and the people of Lithakia. But they were also brainstorming ways to kill Sir Iannis; Andy came up with the idea of trying to insert explosive chemicals into his horse. They went to the Guild of Sages to ask about this, and Iappas told them that in the town of Armstead (quite far to the North) they might find dwarves who could provide such chemicals. But reasoning the journey would take weeks, the PCs decided that this was a dead-end as far as killing Sir Iannis went. But they also asked Iappas what he knew of Cronus. Iappas told them that Cronus was the father of the Gods, who Zeus and his family had imprisoned thousands of years ago. But since Cronus was the God of time, he could exist in the past, present and future simultaneously, which meant his prison was only at best contingent. It could be that he had worshipers in the area - and the sages agreed to pay money for proof of this.

The PCs came up with a new plan for attacking the river fortress, which meant Marm and the bulk of the hirelings swimming up the river, against the current, and entering the side cave which Mixahâm had previously discovered. In the meantime Core and Andy, the heavy mob, would travel up the river bank and get across once the entrance to the complex was secured. This worked well - Core and Andy were able to kill a lookout, while Marm and the hirelings entered the caves and killed another.

However, enough noise was made to alert the inhabitants of the caves, and a brutal fight ensued, with the PCs and their mini-army storming a hive of Cronus-cult acolytes, armed to the teeth with spears and bows - not to mention a priest of Cronus. This cost the party dear. Andy was paralyzed early on by a Hold Person spell and completely incapacitated, while Marm was seriously wounded. Eusebius and Loulia, the hirelings, were both killed - although not before Loulia had dispatched 3 or 4 cultists and won the hearts of the men through her warrior prowess. And finally, we had our first PC death - the cowardly Cronus priest outflanked the party at one point and was able to kill Marm with his sickle; Andy, nearby, was only saved by swift action of the river pirates.

Nonetheless, they were ultimately victorious - all the cultists were apparently killed, although one of the priest's two well-armed bodyguards managed to escape; the other was the only captive (victim of a Fear spell cast by Marm). By the end of the fight Core had 1 hit point remaining and was the only PC still able to actually move -they were a sliver away from a TPK. But they prevailed. In the cave complex they discovered 4,000 sp in clay pots, but more interestingly they also found a large bronze statue of Cronus: an old man with a sickle in one hand, and a set of completely castrated male gonads in the other. Around his feet were arrayed a beautiful copper shield and bronze short sword, of exquisite quality, and an 18" stick of pure black wood. The PCs surmised this was a wand, although they were unable to identify it.

Returning to Riverfork, they reported back to the Temple of the Elements and received their reward - 3,000 gp, which, split between Core and Andy, was a sizeable chunk. Just enough, indeed, for Andy to go up to level 3, taking into account all the kills and a reward offered by Iappas the Sage for the captive bodyguard (who the sages intended to torture for information). There are advantages to the deaths of party members after all...

They also met up with a new PC (who Patrice rolled up to replace Marm). This was a first level female elf with STR 3, called April, who has long blonde flowing locks and a thin blonde moustache but "oddly is not so bad looking". We used the Why Does The New Guy/Girl Know the PCs? table and discovered that April had begged Core and Andy to join them, because she needed 17,000 gp to ransom her lost love, an elf called Elendil.

Thus ended the session. Fun as always, although it was sad to lose Marm - it looks like we'll never know how the geas to kill Sir Iannis would have worked out. We now have a dwarf and an elf in the party, though, and it wouldn't be Basic D&D without that, would it?