Thursday 30 June 2016

More Monsters for Your Amusement


Mossy, damp, looming boulders under the dark of the canopy, big and hunched like shoulders - lurking sentinels among the trees. They are the union of water, rock, plant life and millions of dead souls: repositories for the lives lost by the jungle from century to century, millennium to millennium, aeon to aeon. They brood in complete stillness, in granite solitude.

The near-daily rains weather them – very slowly, very surely. The constant quotidian rainfall wears them down grain by grain, year by year. In the run-off, trickling in miniscule speckles from the rock’s surface, are the tiniest dots of grit, each containing death and the dead: untold dozens, hundreds or thousands of lost lives.

As these tiny specks accumulate in the earth beneath the rocks, they mix with the soil and gasp and moan in collective sorrow at the meaningless cycle of life and death; at the horrific nihilism of the march of the ages that builds and crushes the substance of the earth in endless rhythmic repetition with no goal or aspiration, and which will continue until the stars have faded and the world and the moon with it has been swallowed by the sun.

AC – HD – ATT –
*At a distance, the sound of Softly-moaning-under-rocks is safe; anybody listening closely intently must save vs. magic or be unable to unhear it. From that point on the suspicion that everything is meaningless – that there is nothing but life and death and then waiting for the end of the world itself – subtly saps their energy and enthusiasm. Whenever the player rolls a dice for the PC, roll a single d10 along with it. If the result on that d10 is ‘1’, the action fails irrespective of the main result – the PC’s heart was not in it.    


A stake of wood buried in thick heavy soil, partially obscured by green fronds and low branches. It is carved with the crude but unmistakeable features of a young girl – cut into its surface in such a way that moss and lichen and the gnawing of insect life seem not to alter it. The features never change. But the stake moves – when nobody is looking.

The stake is inhabited by the soul of a child whose tribe abandoned her to the forest when she was lamed. Starving and forced to move on, they gave her to the spirits of the forest and planted the stake to watch over her. The spirits took pity on her, and gave her everlasting life – embodied in the stake with which they found her.

Now she dwells in the forest, attuned with the spirits who live there, yet apart – tangible still, human still, dreaming still. She dreams of her own magical realm, where she might run, marry, bear children, and rule; where she might be a great chieftainess uniting all of the creatures of the forest beneath her benevolent sway - and she harvests souls to one day serve her there.

HD 6, AC 18, ATT – None
*Casts spells as an 8th level magician
*Cannot move unless nobody is looking
*Harvests souls – selects a target, the target must save vs magic or have its soul removed from its then-lifeless shell of a body and spirited into the wooden stake for eternity, unless Dreaming-of-magic-in-the-morning-mist can be persuaded to release them, or is herself destroyed (in which case all the souls inside are extinguished)


A giant moth, its throbbing furred body man-sized, its vast wings patterned with shimmering silver swirls which shine bright in the light of the moon. It creeps about from tree to tree and then soars above the canopy, its wing beats carrying it aloft to bathe in the silky white glow of the firmament. Its huge muscular tongue, curled beneath its head, allows it to burrow into the roots of the mightiest trees, where it sucks up sap, leaving an empty dying husk behind it as it slinks away at dawn. The tongue is a potent weapon that can pierce bone with ease.

HD 5+5, AC 18, AB +5, ATT 1d3/1d3/1d6/Death
*Attacks with forelegs and wing buffet; if both foreleg attacks hit the victim is pinned down and killed by the tongue piercing his or her brain; no save is permitted, though the moth spends 1d3 turns sucking out the juices
*Shimmering markings cause confusion for 1d6+2 rounds in a viewer on a failed save vs magic
*+2 AB and +2 DMG at night
*Emits attraction pheromones which spread 60’ around it and cause humans to develop overpoweringly amorous feelings towards one another on a failed save vs magic

A multitude of-feet-tapping-like-raindrops

Ants. A civilization of them. Millions of tiny minds. Thinking. Speaking. Walking. Gathering. Grazing. Feasting. Breeding. Killing. All in the tiniest, softest sounds which, gathered together, sound like the pitter-patter of heavy rain falling in sheets on the forest. When desired they gather together in humanoid form, some locking their feet together to form the structure of the body; others a constantly shifting working mass in the middle like blood, muscle and organs; and in the centre of the chest the beating heart – the queen – squeezing eggs from her grotesque swollen abdomen and with her pheromones guiding the hulking, shuddering, shifting mass as it strides about amongst the trees in search of food.

HD 6+2, AC 16, AB +6, ATT – Special/Special
*Attacks with ‘fists’. If either hits, soldiers stream from within the body onto that of the target, sinking their mandibles into tender skin and injecting venom that results in waves of all-consuming pain that throbs through the body as though it is itself a living thing. The pain is so great that victims void their bowels and their muscles spasm for days after; in their enfeebled state they are then butchered by the mass of tiny jaws working in perfect concert together. (Take 1d6 hp damage and save vs poison: failed save indicates paralysis for 1 day and enfeeblement – 1/4 STR – for 2d6 days; successful save indicates enfeeblement for 1d6 days.)

Tuesday 28 June 2016



A squat amphibian with squalid brown eyes and claws, it is reminiscent of toads, fat swollen grubs, and hairless flabby bellies. It has a vile stink, like dead leaves, mud and rotting refuse. It belches gas and squirts poison, and gurgles strange noises into the jungle at dusk.

HD 5, AC 16, AB +6, ATT 1d6/1d6 
*If both claw attacks hit, pulls to mouth and chews for 2d6 damage per round, hitting automatically, until death of the victim)
*Squirts milky white poison to its rear in a 6’ cone spray, melting flesh for 1d6+3 damage and permanent disfigurement of -6 CHA, or -2 CHA on a successful save
*Belches gas in an 8’ cube in front of it, causing incapacitation from vomiting for 1d6 rounds, or 1d3 rounds on a successful save
*Gurgles and croaks; these are audible at a distance of a mile – those hearing are made magically curious and must approach on a failed save by the appointed dice roller for the party


If the cassowaries have a devil, this is it. A blue crested big bird with bilious eyes and brutal talons. It is the height of tall man and seeks to slice at the kneecaps, groin and belly with its reptilian feet. It has the utter implacability and unhesitating aggressive initiative of a gull digging up clams or a crow carrying off a baby sparrow.

HD 4+4, AC 16, AB +7, ATT 1d6/1d6
*Roll a d3 on a successful hit – 1 indicates the knees, 2 the groin, 3 the belly. The target must successfully save vs death or be permanently lamed (half movement rate), castrated (incapacitated for two weeks), or eviscerated (death) 


A black, undead husk of a tree that was sucked and gnawed and leeched to death by bugs, parasites and disease. Its soul inhabits the ruin of its former body, listening to the life of the jungle around it in suspicious fear and feeling itself slowly rot – the fungus burrowing into its corpse, the worms eating its roots. It dreams of reinvigoration, of return, of rebirth, of resurrection, of green shoots, and of life…

All that Quietly-thinking-in-the-dark-forest needs is a life – a human being is enough. That will allow it to sprout a new shoot from its old, withered and half-eaten roots. Passers-by (within 30’) must roll a saving throw vs magic. If they fail, they are overcome with the need to give their life blood to the tree. They feel as though they are filled with hot, sticky, thick fluid that needs to be released. They feel pregnant with it – as though they are walking sacks of blood which sloshes around inside them, uncomfortably, awkwardly, hatefully. They feel the disgust that a plant has towards hot, mammalian flesh. They feel compelled to slice open their wrists and groin and neck and let out all of this grotesque fluid which bloats them. If they do so, they die within a minute and the tree has the blood it needs to sprout. Within a month, a tiny shoot appears with a single yellow-green leaf. If eaten, this leaf is a cure for all diseases and a regenerator of lost limbs. If the sprout is cut out, the tree must start over again.

HD 8, AC 18, AB - , ATT –


Cat-sized marsupial scuttling rat-like beasts with agile grasping hands, and muscular tails which sway back and forth in balance. They chitter and chatter to each other in conspiratorial whispers in a language that no others can understand; they are like thieves and spies in love with shadows, hiding and deceit. They sharpen their claws on tree bark so that they can catch their prey, and snigger to each other as they gnaw on bones.

Peering-from-tree-branches-at-night-time loves ears, eyes, scalps, noses, teeth. In the darkness they hang by their tails from branches, or dangle each other by the feet, to drop down on shoulders to bite and scratch and return chuckling with bloody trophies to present to their mates.

HD 1, AC 20, AB +4, ATT Special
*Are never surprised; always surprise opponents unless the opponents are deliberately scanning the trees above them
*Attack in ambush by dangling from branches and dropping down to attack: failure indicates the attacker falls the floor and scampers up a nearby tree in the next round; success means 1d6 damage and an eye, ear, the nose, or the scalp is torn out/off (roll a d4)


A bower bird with emerald eyes, a head of sky blue, and a body of near-luminous yellow, whose sharp intelligent beak and tenderly dextrous claws are primarily devoted to gathering items for an ever-expanding bower made from feathers, feathers, stones, shells, and skins – anything that is vibrant and vivid.

It is assisted by a juvenile male with which it dances before the bower before the sceptical eyes of females. Together, the two males bounce and circle each other in a mesmerising rhythmic movement, their yellow wings making circular motions which linger in the vision like miniature suns, burned into the retina, impossible to remove no matter how much the observer rubs his eyes, splashes them with water, blinks, or weeps. They are always there, yellow circles of light, whether the observer’s eyes are closed or open – in the centre of the vision, painful, bright, permanent. Sleep is almost impossible, and when it happens, it is dominated by a vision of a circle of yellow that appears slowly and endlessly descending, lower and lower, without ever quite arriving, without ever quite meeting the eye, without ever quite bringing the suffering to a close with the sweet embrace of death.

HD 1, AC 20, AB +1, ATT None
*If a PC sees the bower birds dancing, he or she must save vs magic or be permanently semi-blinded (-4 to all dice rolls requiring vision) and overcome by a profound malaise – roll 1d20 at the start of each day; on a roll of 1 the PC is catatonic and cannot be persuaded to do anything, although he or she will be too meek to resist being carried or led

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Four of the Tribes on the Lower Sunset River

1. The men of the Gowanusim believe in killing and death. They murder for sport and to prove themselves; they revel in it. Their war canoes are big and always well-crewed, and skim up and down the river like swimming pythons. The other tribes fear their men and hate them, and kill them in revenge where they can; everybody on the lower Sunset River has a feud with some man or other of the Gowanusim. They paint their faces red, with white tears running in streaks from their eyes, and wear necklaces of river oysters and blue feathered head dresses.

In the Gowanusim's village lives Ndam, the oldest woman in the lower Sunset River. The knowledge she holds in her head about people, places and beasts of the area could fill a frigate.

Men of the Gowanusim have an extra +1 AB and +1 hp; they are always aggressive (-4 to reaction dice rolls).

2. The Wawtua inhabit a swamp infested with venomous snakes and nests of young crocodiles; adults walk everywhere on stilts that are 18 inches high; the Wawtua are agile like colourful swamp-dwelling mountain goats. They paint their faces in a checked pattern of black, yellow, red and white, and wear head dresses of long green bird of paradise tail feathers which add an extra two feet to their height. Together with their stilts, this means the Wawtua can appear nine feet high.

The Wawtua have a poison expert dwelling among them, who uses the snakes of the swamp to craft specific toxins to kill any kind of living thing. She is only referred to as Fingers: she long ago cut away the skin of her fingertips and replaced them with finely polished bone, so that she does not accidentally stab herself with her darts and needles.

The Wawtua move 50% faster than ordinary humans and have +1 AB when using ranged weapons.

3. The Yayiwo keep bower birds; or, perhaps more accurately, bower birds keep the Yayiwo. These bower birds are of a certain variety found nowhere else; they are black and nondescript, save for their vivid purple bills. The bower birds give every appearance of ruling the Yayiwo and issue them a wide variety of chirps to signal their need for food, water, or luxuries. In return, the Yayiwo appear to gain little except for the fact that these birds act as scouts and sentinels in the forest.

The Yayiwo's witch doctor is the most puissant in the lower Sunset River. He can cure diseases and certain poisons - if the supplicant proves that he or she has spirit.

The Yayiwo coat themselves head to foot in pale brown dried mud, and cover their heads in leering face masks made from clay.

4. The Amlablak are a small tribe who expand their numbers through marriage rather than breeding. Their men and women have sex, but suppress pregnancy through the use of various herbs and toxins. Numbers expand by marrying in outsiders, who adopt new names and body decorations when they do so. They paint their faces bright yellow and jab quills through their nose and ears; their head dresses are black, blue and red.

A great seer known as Kimiagham lives with the Amlablak. Some say that he married an Amlablak woman of extraordinary beauty and hence joined the tribe; others say he founded it. In any event, his vision exists beyond and behind space and time; he can see even into the minds and memories of others, into the distant past, the far future, and potential futures and pasts which were or will always be unrealised.

The Amlablak do not trade or interact with outsiders unless they marry into the tribe.

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Maze of the Blue Medusa: A Coming of Age Story

I'm sure you've already heard about the release of Maze of the Blue Medusa. I don't want to lay it on too thick, so I will refrain from gushing too much; suffice to say, I feel as though this is the point at which the Do-It-Yourself RPG movement has come of age.

Please understand me: I am not talking about "the OSR", which is a term I have never really liked. I am talking about the broader liberalisation, if you can call it that, of the creation of RPG materials for mass audiences - as facilitated and boosted by technological advancement (the internet), changes in the industry (the OGL and similar), and key innovators (everybody from Vincent Baker to Ron Edwards to James Raggi). This is what I mean when I talk about "DIY RPGs"; it's not something which the story gamers or d20 publishers can fairly be excluded from.

Why is it a coming of age moment? Because Maze of the Blue Medusa is, I think, better than most if not all mainstream RPG books which I own. It is not quite Pendragon, not quite the original Planescape boxed set. But it is at that level, in terms of the quality of the product and its content.

The fact that a couple of people made it from the modern day equivalent of a studio garret demonstrates two things. First, there are people with sufficient talent, and second that technology has advanced to such a level, that there is no excuse for there not to be a hundred such products emerging from this thing which I refer to as the "DIY RPG movement" within, say, 10 years' time. Products which are in the same bracket as the original Planescape boxed set, which was the pinnacle of what TSR was capable of at its zenith.

That is really quite something.

Monday 20 June 2016

The Cult of the Unmated Female with Eggs

When Pape Jan entered the Dreamtime of Man in the crocodile's memory, he sought with some success to bring the Word of God to the strange heathen beings he found there. This has given rise to false memories in the crocodile's mind - nowadays, when it thinks of the those creatures, it pictures some of them carrying crossed sticks and books, ritually washing themselves, and drinking each other's blood. Sometimes, they construct large square nests out of stone, in which they gather for purposes it cannot understand.

Over time, as the crocodile 'remembers' these activities, they crystallise in its mind, becoming rapidly stronger, stranger and more detailed, even as they grow further and further from what Pape Jan intended. In due course, many esoteric groupings resembling cargo cults have arisen among the memory-homo erectus; one of these groupings is the Cult of the Unmated Female with Eggs.

The Cult of the Unmated Female with Eggs revolves around the veneration of the image of a young female memory-homo-erectus carrying a clutch of eggs in her arms. This image is daubed in blood on the inside of caves, carved into cliff faces, or scratched into the sand in river banks; wherever members of the cult are found, they create such images and prostrate themselves before them, muttering strange arhythmic and garbled chants that might be thought of as parodies of song.

These groups are led by covens of young, pregnant females. When a female has become pregnant for the first time, and until she gives birth, she is taken away from her mate and becomes part of the leadership coven; once she has given birth she loses her privileged status and never regains it. This gives the leadership coven a constantly rotating membership. These females are fed with the blood of the group's members and their every whim is indulged; for the duration of their period of leadership they live together separately as one. After they leave the leadership coven they may select a different mate, as they are deemed to have not in fact yet mated.

When one of the females in the leadership coven has given birth, her eggs are taken to a large circular open-roofed chamber made from wood and stone which the males build together. Around the tops of the walls are placed crossed sticks equal in number to the number of eggs. Once the eggs have hatched, the young are carried to the top of the walls and tied to those sticks, where they are venerated until the next female in the leadership coven gives birth. At this point they are taken down and incorporated into the clan as ordinary members.

While they are in position on the crossed sticks, the young are fed with the blood of captives who are taken to the middle of their chamber and tied to staves. These unfortunate captives are kept alive in that position for as long as possible, being fed and watered and occasionally untied to relieve themselves, so that they can provided blood for the young for as long as they are able before expiring.

Pape Jan considers the Cult of the Unmated Female with Eggs to be a heresy, and he attempts to expunge these false 'memories' whenever he becomes aware of them.

Friday 17 June 2016

John Malkovich as Widow Twankey

I had a dream last night. A friend and I were in quite a nice trendy bar on the veranda on a balmy summer night. With us were Ben Kingsley and John Malkovich. My friend and I were putting on a pantomime, and were trying to convince John Malkovich to star in it as Widow Twankey. (These terms may mean nothing if you're not British. Sorry.) Ben Kingsley was recommending it to him as a great career move - and actually dream world Ben Kingsley was a really nice chap all round. But John was a bit reticent and I woke up with the issue not having quite been resolved.

It reminded me of a conversation we had on an early episode of A Gaming Podcast About Nothing in which, if I recall correctly, we were musing about the possibility of what Seinfeld would have been like if Will Smith had taken the role of Jerry. At the time I thought that there was some sort of strange and distant mileage in making that prospect a story game. So here is the preliminary notes on that story game. It's called John Malkovich as Widow Twankey (or J-MAWT). It is incomplete and half-formed - maybe somebody can do something with it.

The Rules

Pick a television series or film you enjoy, or roll on the following table:

1 - Star Trek (OS)
2 - Star Trek (tNG)
3 - Star Wars
4 - Star Wars (the prequels)
5 - Braveheart
6 - The A Team
7 - Ghost
8 - Dirty Dancing
9 - Aliens
10 - Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Each player then picks a character who they want to be, given the initial starting premise for whatever the film or TV series is. ("I want to be Captain Picard"; "I want to be Riker", "I want to be Wesley Crusher" (as if!) etc.).

Then, each player forces the player sitting to his left to be somebody else from a different film or TV series, by rolling on the table above and then picking a character from the relevant film or TV series, who has been transplanted.

For example:

The game is taking place in Star Trek, tNG. Boris has expressed the desire to be Riker.

Jenny is sitting to the right of Boris. She has to force him to be somebody else instead. She rolls on the table and gets a 4 - Star Wars (the prequels). She thinks for the briefest of moments before saying: "Boris, you are not Riker as played by Jonathan 'Two Takes' Frakes. You are in fact Jar Jar Binks playing the First Officer on the USS Enterprise."

Jenny has expressed the desire to be Captain Picard. Alf, who is sitting to her right, rolls on the table and gets Aliens. He says, "Jenny, you are not Captain Picard as played by Patrick Stewart. You are in fact Sergeant Vasquez playing the Captain of the USS Enterprise."

And so on. The aim of the game is to play things out with the new characters in the roles allotted to them. So Captain Picard isn't the Captain Picard we know. The Captain of the Enterprise is instead a rather aggressive but competent Hispanic woman called Captain Vasquez. Riker isn't Riker. He is instead Commander Binks, Vasquez's "Number One". Maybe Welsey Crusher is rather like the Patrick Swayze character in 'Ghost'. And Deanna Troi is, of course, Mr T, the ship's counselor with the old fashioned "tough love" approach.

The cast do exactly the kind of things that would be done in a Star Trek: tNG episode. In fact, the GM should pick a Star Trek: tNG episode as the basic template. But instead of Riker, Picard and Wesley going on that away trip, it's Commander Binks, Captain Vasquez, and Patrick Swayze from Ghost. But Counselor T senses trouble.... And Dr William Wallace is sharpening his claymore just in case.

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Behind Gently Smiling Jaws: Grog Shops in Port Keizerin Elisabeth

No drinking establishment in Port Keizerin Elisabeth is so grand as to deserve the label of “inn”, “tavern” or even “pub”. They are uniformly poor, miserable and spartan: often simply a large tent or lean-to with benches and a big pot full of home-made rum mixed with water and nutmeg. They throng with a familiar crowd of dypsomaniacs, socialites and old soaks, labourers and sailors - all spending their meagre earnings in search of the balm of oblivion to salve the pain of desperation.

Whenever the PCs decide to visit a grog shop, there will be d3 familiar faces amidst the general crowd of drinkers – one of the regulars who floats about this twilight world of rum and regret. There is also a 1 in 3 chance of a special event taking place.

Use the first table when creating a grog shop. Use the table underneath to generate familiar faces and special events when the PCs visit. 

Grog Shop

Robert Adams, an Ulsterman with an unhappy, dry wit
The grog shop has a small pet penguin that sailors once brought from a distant land; it can carry a tankard on its head
Blue Billy, a Paradijs native whose face is permanently dyed blue
The grog shop has a cook who used to work for a French admiral; the food is stunningly and incongruously delicious
Alfonso Alves, a Portingale with a predilection for female feet
The rum is poorly distilled and there is a 1 in 100 chance of going blind from drinking it
William van Bommel, the smelliest man in Port Keizerin Elisabeth
Two domesticated cassowaries are on guard at all times; they obey the landlord’s orders to attack, but will also attack dogs on sight
Pierre Delumeau, a Huguenot who only serves those who renounce Papistry
The grogshop has a piano that somebody stole from a merchant ship; in the dead of night it is sometimes heard playing
Margaret Schmidt, a Duitser princess fleeing an unhappy marriage in Batavia; Schmidt is an assumed name
In a corner of the grog shop is a statute brought by an explorer from a distant native village; the witch doctor who carved it is said to still be able to see out from its eyes, but nobody is brave enough to get rid of it
Madam Shu, a tall Chinese woman who carries two snakes at all times, one wrapped around each wrist
The landlord has two pet bowerbirds who both mimic each other mimicking snatches of overheard conversation; they have an uncanny knack of choosing the most embarrassing utterances
The Dunnock, a diminutive and furtive Welshman who speaks in whispers
The grog shop has a plaintive ‘pet’ tree kangaroo who lives an unhappy existence chained in a corner
Arjen van der Graaf, thin and severe, who prefers his patrons to drink in stony silence
The grog shop has a dancer and musicians from Turkije, Hindoostan or Bali
Olaf the Oaf, a bearded Dane with an unfair nickname
The grog shop is built on a raft moored at a jetty; sometimes disgruntled drunks cut the rope and it floats away, with the landlord having to row it back in the morning

Familiar Faces and Events

Familiar Faces (d3 on any given occasion)
Special Events/Encounters
Jap Strood, an old Nederlander with a nose like a squashed strawberry, a belly like a drum, and a face of cracked red veins, who was once an explorer
A wandering Bird of Paradise Man is at the grog house. He offers to fight a duel with any challenger, for an agreed stake: there are no rules, except that either combatant may surrender and forfeit the fight at any time.
Gunnar Gunnarsson, a smooth-tongued Swede who spies for the Swedish East India Company, smuggling secrets out through certain sympathetic traders
There is a beetle race taking place. Anyone may bet; the winner is randomly determined by the DM by rolling a d6 for each of the 2d6 beetles taking part and keeping a cumulative tally until one of the beetles reaches 20.

Dirk Maarwijk, dashing and handsome, with long blonde locks of hair and nothing between his ears, who made love to most of the wives of most of the noblemen in Batavia
Press gangers. A group of sailors from a naval vessel raid the grog shop for forced labour. There are 3d6 of them, with AC 14, HD 1+1, AB +2, armed with clubs and knives. They set about carrying off the most inebriated drinkers; each of the players rolls a d6, with the press gangers targeting the PC with the lowest score.
Diwata the Divine, a Tagalog woman so beautiful as to be heavenly, who is an expert on black powder and its uses
Travelling Paradijs native dancers. A troupe of Paradijs natives, some men and some women, who will perform war dances for money. They are from a village on the Sunset River (roll a dice to determine which) and know the entire area.
Michael McFarlane, a Scotchman with fiery red hair, who can interpret dreams and visions
Returning prospectors. A group of men returned from searching for gold or other resources upriver. They are tough, taciturn, and troubled by what they have seen. But they may tell of it for a price.
Quick and Quicker, Ceylonish twins with unpronounceable names, who can identify any spice or poison
Sailors spoiling for a fight. A gang of 2d6 men onshore from a visiting ship. They have 1+1 HD and +2 AB and are in search of fisticuffs. They may become fast friends of those they fight with, afterwards.
Ruud the Yellow, a jaundiced nobleman in all senses of the word, who came to Paradijs fleeing creditors
“Romance”. One of the PCs becomes the subject of the affections of a young (or not so young) woman or man. Roll a d6: the lower the score, the worse the PC’s luck.
James Swales, an Englishman with a fat, jowelled face and blubbery skin, who belongs to a mysterious sect and came fleeing persecution
Scholar. A very brave or very foolish scholar who is on his way elsewhere and briefly disembarked. He is from the university of 1 – Bologna, 2 – Oxford, 3 – Cambridge, 4 – Salamanca, 5 – Santo Tomas, 6 – Charles, and will pay for unusual samples, maps, etc.
Quiet Celeste, a soft-spoken old Frenchwoman who they say was brought up by witches
Waif. A young boy or girl wastrel starts following the PCs everywhere and expresses the desire to join them.
Maria De La Torre, a Spaniard with a generous spirit and generous hips, who knows all of the tribes on the Sunset River
Arm wrestling tournament. A knock-out tournament with a 100 thaler purse and 16 initial participants. Bouts are won by participants rolling under their STR on a d20 while still outscoring their opponents.

Tuesday 14 June 2016

Grimdark Kitsch: Let's Talk About Shit

Conversation on G+ led me to this excellent old post by Roger GS. (Isn't it terrifying that I can describe a post from 2014 as "old"? Doesn't that thought send shivers down your spine?)

It got me thinking about Milan Kundera. It is kind of embarrassing to name drop Kundera, especially The Unbearable Lightness of Being, because it has become a cliche and claiming to have read it has become a shorthand for a certain type of pseudo-intellectualism (and as a result the book perhaps has itself unjustly become part of a certain mode of kitsch). But I'm going to do it anyway, because the book is famous for a reason.

Towards the end of the book Kundera goes on a diversion and starts discussing kitsch. He comes up with what I think is the best definition of kitsch out there: "the aesthetic ideal [of the basic faith in human goodness] a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch."

The existence of shit is a metaphysical challenge to anybody who believes in a perfectly created world. If you believe that human beings are created properly and that human existence is a good thing, you would not hide shit. You would not lock yourself away in a bathroom but do it publicly, because to have a shit would be as normal and natural and good as eating. But people don't do this - they lock themselves in the bathroom. This must mean that shit is unacceptable to them, and this must hence mean that human beings are not created perfectly.

Kitsch is art which seeks to avoid and salve this fundamental metaphysical insecurity. Indeed, it is art which actively militates against shit by denying its existence at every turn. It is the pursuit of the complete opposite of shit - and hence the pursuit of reassurance about the perfect goodness of creation.

There is a lot more that Kundera has to say about kitsch. But let's begin with this (I think, true) observation that kitsch is the aesthetic ideal which denies shit. Is there an opposite sort of kitsch; a mirror image of kitsch; a kitsch that embraces, nay, insists on shit?

This is grimdark kitsch. Creation is imperfect, human life bleak, the universe apathetic if not actively baleful and hostile. Shit is not to be denied, but to be embraced. Indeed, to deny shit is to deny a set of fundamental givens about the nature of existence.

How does kitsch manifest itself? Kundera describes kitsch as something that must be shared by the multitudes - it has to be the kind of cliche which everybody knows and can refer to in their minds. He describes it, famously, as two tears. When somebody sees children running on grass and is moved to tears by the experience, the first tear says: "How nice to see children running on the grass!" The second tear says: "How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!"

"It is the second tear which makes kitsch kitsch."

Grimdark kitsch, similarly, is something that is shared by the multitudes.

Grimdark touches many different types of art and entertainment, but let's think about it in the context of OSR games.

When confronted with a horrible NPC death that serves no purpose, the first ironic smile of the grimdark gamer says: "How amusing to see the grim and uncaring nature of the universe reinforced!" The second ironic smile says: "How nice to amused, together with all other grimdark gamers, to see the grim and uncaring nature of the universe reinforced!"

When a PC goes mad due to having his sanity blasted by a pseudo-Lovecraftian entity, the first chortle says: "How deliciously fucked up!" The second chortle says, "How nice to see this as fucked up, together with all other grimdark gamers!"

When the party accidentally summon a demonic power which goes on the rampage and destroys a town, the first cackle says "How hilariously anti-heroic!" The second cackle says, "How nice to cackle at anti-heroic acts with all other grimdark gamers!"

It is the second ironic smile, chortle or cackle which makes grimdark kitsch kitsch.

Warhammer 40,000 is of course the epitome of grimdark kitsch, but you find it everywhere: in Irvine Welsh novels, in The Ass Goblins of Auschwitz, in Lovecraft's inferior successors, in any given slasher flick or torture porn film. The insistence on shit is as kitschy as its denial.

Monday 13 June 2016

The Natural World as Survival Horror

In its current form, Springwatch may be the best and most important programme on TV anywhere in the world at the moment. Forget your boxed sets. This is serious television making.

The central conceit of Springwatch is that a big collection of BBC cameramen decamp to some location in the British Isles and set up small cameras everywhere - often in birds' nests. They then just watch what happens. In its modern iteration Chris Packham has steered it and shaped it in his own image: a completely uncompromising look at what the natural world is all about - typically, death.

What I like most about Springwatch is that it doesn't pull any punches, but nor does it dress things up in melodrama. It simply presents what happens with neutral, careful commentary which explains but never judges. There's no music or slow motion or any of the other bullshit you get in nature documentaries. (The BBC has in recent years been creating some outstanding wildlife programmes, but it has become obsessed with slow-mo to the point of self-parody. But let's not get started on that.) Just the facts, ma'am.

The effect this achieves is to magnify the uncaring brutality of the natural world. It shows exactly how hard things actually are for animals to survive, especially when young. Watch this encounter between some great tit chicks and a jay.

As soon as that jay figures out where they are, those poor little blighters are fucked. They don't stand a chance. Their entire experience from life to death can be summarised as being shut away in a box eating caterpillars for couple of weeks and then getting a brief glimpse of a vast and frightening world before being messily dispatched by an aggressive corvid. I mean, HP Lovecraft had nothing on this.

And sometimes you're not even safe in the nest. These green woodpecker chicks (four or five of them, it turned out in the end) didn't even get as far as the great tits. As soon as a female stoat figured out where they were their days were numbered.

Of course, we all know this is part of life. I don't want to turn into James Lovelock and start blathering on about Gaia...but you could interpret Springwatch as a sort of implicit text of the Gaia hypothesis: at times it seems to present - whether accidentally or by design - a cyclical view of nature that is almost too perfect. The stoat eats the woodpeckers, a tawny owl eats the stoat, the owl shits in the woods and fertilises an acorn which grows into a tree full of insects which woodpeckers eat, etc.

But viewed through a different lens it presents what is in a sense the bleakest picture imaginable - life is unremitting struggle for no purpose and it will get you sooner or later (and it's often sooner). If you're an animal you can battle to survive but the best thing that you can hope for is to perpetuate your genes (but what good does that do you really?) and that when you're killed off it will be relatively painless.

So forget the Great Old Ones, Morgoth, and the unending struggle between Law and Chaos. Nature, if you want to see it that way, is bad enough: survival horror on the biggest scale imaginable. If a jay doesn't eat you, a stoat will, and you will be absolutely none the wiser about what the point of the whole thing was. Why make a special plea for supernatural uncaring alien deities when the real world conveys that message more purely than fantasy ever could?

[I don't actually see the world this way, of course. I lean much closer towards Lovelock than Lovecraft. But you see my point anyway.]

Friday 10 June 2016

Welcome to 1994: My D&D Cultural Context

Richard G wrote a really interesting post about the cultural context of D&D. It got me thinking about the cultural context of my D&D.

It isn't hard to come to the conclusion, reading about D&D online (particularly among the old school blogs) that the musical backdrop to D&D for a lot of people was, and still is, 70s and 80s metal. I think Richard G is right that this probably had some influence on making the game a bit less whimsical and a bit more serious over time. I would add that it probably also made things self-consciously "darker" and "edgier". This was a trend against which there was eventually a bit of a reaction, in the form of AD&D 2nd edition, but the metal aesthetic also remains a strong "dark and edgy" sub-current (super-current, really) within the hobby to this day.

(I also think the case can be made that metal influenced not just D&D but the fantasy genre in general from the 1970s onwards - or perhaps influenced the fantasy genre through D&D. At the height of popularity for The Lord of the Rings in the 1960s, fantasy was hippies wearing sandals. By the 1980s it was chainmail bikinis and battle axes. Was that because of metal, or was the success of metal a bi-product of it?)

Those trends were never in my cultural context, though. I was 13 in 1994, and I would say that was the beginning of peak D&D, for me (peak Warhammer too, and peak Shadowrun, and peak Cyberpunk 2020 also....). For the next 3 years that sort of thing was my main hobby. But the soundtrack to those years was not metal. 1994 was the end of grunge and the beginning of Britpop, and it was that strange mixture of influences which formed the context in which I was playing games. The backdrop to my D&D years was in large part stuff like this:

It was Tricky and Massive Attack. It was Radiohead when they were still writing songs and Thom Yorke wasn't quite such a sanctimonious knob. It was the American grunge scene that was still around, like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and Nirvana (who people were still, of course, listening to). It was dark, in its way, but I think more than being dark the overwhelming vibe is better described as depressing. In 1994 it was cool to be depressed.

That fit in with Warhammer almost ideally: a bleak musical backdrop to a bleak setting.

Yet on the other hand there was also this:

And because I had an older sister who was the one in charge of music in the house or in the car on family trips, it was also this:

All of this stuff was in the air constantly in those days. The mid 90s was the point at which Britain began to flex its cultural muscles and look up instead of back. So the cultural context of D&D for me isn't metal just as much as it isn't Tiki. It's greasy-haired pessimism but it is also interested in beauty and in the possibility of optimism. That sounds more than a bit pretentious. But that's the backdrop against which the game took root in my mind.

Thursday 9 June 2016

Oceangoing Floating Toad Mothers

Floating the great flat expanse of the wide ocean, with the energy of the hot sun in its veins, the crocodile gazed across the surface of the water and saw boats crewed by men, women and children: settlers spreading East in search of islands to make their homes. In the eye of the crocodile, they were not boats but beasts: floating brown creatures, propelled by powerful legs, and seemingly carrying swarms of squirming, wriggling young on their backs. Some form of giant seagoing toads, then: long, narrow amphibians which host their young within their skin, swimming across the oceans like the crocodile too - cold-blooded companions in the vast expanse of the hot Southern seas.

Oceangoing Floating Toad Mother

AC 16, HD 9+9, AB +6
*Bites for 1d6 damage; an attack that does 6 hp of damage causes the victim to be swallowed (if human sized or smaller) - death occurs within 3 rounds unless the toad mother is killed
*Carries 2d20 young, which squirm free from the skin within 1 round if the toad mother is attacked


AC 12, HD 1, AB +1
*Bites for 1d2 damage
*Six young acting together can forgo making attacks to drag a victim below the surface of the water to drown within 6 rounds

Wednesday 8 June 2016

Behind Gently Smiling Jaws: Seven Realms of Memory for Seven Who Went Before

What I am currently trying to come up with is a way to allow DMs to match the seven different memory realms in the crocodile's mind to the the Seven Who Went Before, whether randomly or purposively. The seven memory realms are (currently) as follows:

  • Memories of Ruin, based on the aftermath of a meteor strike
  • Dreams Beneath the Ice, when the crocodile was slumbering beneath a glacier during an ice age
  • The Infinite City on the Water, an ancient port city which the crocodile once saw
  • The Dreamtime of Man, when Homo Erectus walked the earth amongst megafauna 
  • The Trade Winds, when the crocodile witnessed ancient colonisation of Polynesia by long-forgotten civilizations
  • The Primordial Swamp, which is the crocodile's very distant and very warped memories of the era of the dinosaurs, as well as its own mother and siblings
  • The Ziggurats Under the Sea, which the crocodile saw from the surface of the ocean on its wanderings
Each of these memory realms can be shaped by interlopers to the crocodile's mind, because they can act to attempt to change its memories - which will then cause things to come into existence there. So, for instance, they might teach one of the five varieties of feathered men in the Infinite City on the Water to use black powder weapons. Now the crocodile dimly remembers them that way, albeit imperfectly. All of the Seven Who Went Before have affected things in a different memory realm in some way: all of them have forged their own palace or land or kingdom or whatever there, and imposed elements of order (although most of each memory realm remains untouched, of course). 

Each of the Seven does this in a different way. So Xu Fu attempts to impose a kind of idealised Chinese legal order on things; Jorge de Menezez tries to rouse armies of conquest; Pape Jan tries to forcibly convert everything to Christianity, etc. But this will manifest itself in different ways depending on which memory realm the DM allocates each of the Seven to (again, whether randomly or purposively). So the DM might decide the Xu Fu has made his home in The Trade Winds memory realm, thus "infecting it" (for want of a better term) with his Chinese court wizard ideals. On the other hand, he might decide that Pape Jan has made his home in The Dreamtime of Man, and has begun prosletyising amongst the reptilian psuedo-Homo Erectus things that live there and sewing the seeds of holy war between them. A different DM who picks up the book may decide to put Xu Fu in The Primordial Swamp, and Pape Jan in Memories of Ruin, and things will change accordingly. 

It makes things complicated. But I'll figure out a way to make it work. 

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Introduction: Behind Gently Smiling Jaws

The surface of the Guarded Lake is a mirror reflecting blue and white and the looming trees around its edges. Children play in its clear waters. Villagers wade in its shallows collecting freshwater whelks and oysters. Canoes skid over its surface steered by men carrying nets. They know that they are safe from what lies beneath.

Nobody knows how old the crocodile is, but it is old. It has lived in this lake for long eons. Its armour is thick and as hard as acacia wood. Its long, lazy tail is bigger than the oldest and largest python. Its body is broader than the great war canoes of the Wogamusin. Each of its teeth is bigger than the beak of a cassowary. Its eyes are intelligent and cold. They have seen beyond time.

The people of Sos Kundi know that the lake holds no dangers. Their shamanesses have since the dawn of their people’s memory known that the crocodile mainly sleeps, and dreams, and reminisces. It does not hunger except for what it has lost. It feels the creeping onset of old age and remembers its youth. It is used to the Sos Kundi and they are for it as significant and useful a part of the environment as the singing birds in the forest.

Behind the crocodile’s gently smiling jaws is a world of memory. In its mind are memories of such antiquity that all trace of them have faded elsewhere in the world. Beasts long extinct whose bones are now dust. Spirits whose substance have gradually tattered and frayed down the eons until nothing remains. Civilizations which have risen and fallen and whose ruins are no longer even part of distant legend. Lands which have sunk beneath seas so deep that not even the kraken have seen them. The crocodile witnessed it all and those memories live inside it still.

Memory. The crocodile’s mind is a store of it so vast that its extent is beyond contemplation. If one could get inside such a mind one could discover secrets and wonders from beyond time itself - if one could survive the things which live within the memories of the oldest of the old.

These Things I Have Learned

Have I ever done a post about this before? I may have done, but there are lots of things that I half-remember writing about. Anyway, Joseph of Against The Wicked City fame put up a post that got me thinking about blogging and what I've learned (such as it is) over the years about generating traffic. Here are five things.

1. Content posts (monsters, magic items, encounters, NPCs, whatever) tend not to elicit as much in the way of comments, or even page views, as other types of post. I've always found it a bit puzzling but when I think about it makes sense: what are people supposed to say, other than "This is great!" or "This is terrible!" or perhaps offer constructive criticism?

2. By the same token, posts which are all opinion get the most comments and page views, because they provide a springboard for anybody and everybody to sound off.

3. Post about Warhammer and you will get a lot of traffic.

4. Reddit really is the frontpage of the internet. If somebody links to one of your posts on Reddit you really notice.

5. This may be the most important thing: the more frequently you post, all else being equal, the more people come back.

To which the obvious conclusion is: post a rant about Warhammer every day and post one of them on Reddit under an assumed name and before you know it you will be Andrew Sullivan.

Monday 6 June 2016

Memories of Ruin

With the sudden darkness came winter. It lasted for years. Clouds of burnished red which faded to grey and coated the sky. Cold gales sweeping over the earth, bringing dust which piled into drifts as high as the hills. The world quaked and folded and split. The seas swelled and grew huge with waves which moved over the land itself in vast walls of water. The very mountains erupted in flame.

The living things around the crocodile died. Everywhere it went it found their bodies moldering. It feasted on them. It was a time of bounty. Sometimes, as it moved from place to place it found others who, like it, were not quelled by catastrophe - and indeed grew strong. Small furred things once furtive, now bold. Feathered flyers grown fat on corpses. Shelled tortoises too pugnacious to expire.

The crocodile saw Death itself on occasion, too. Their relations were cordial. It was not the crocodile's time and would not be for eons yet.

The memory of those days is vivid in the crocodile's mind. The dark, the cold, the restless baleful movements of the earth and sees. The food. It forgot the meaning of hunger. 

The Ghost of a Triceratops

At times during those carrion years, the crocodile imagined the things it had once known, before what it thought of as the Dark Winter. The mournful, lost spirits of the masses of the dead. They exist in its memory that way. Seen out of the corner of the eye. Miserable drifters which long for what is gone.

AC 18* (not harmed by non-magical weapons), HD 9, AB N/A (does not attack)
*Invisible if looked at directly; can only be seen if glanced at (attacks are at -6 to hit)
*Slow (half movement rate of a human)
*Drains 1hp per turn from living things within 60', unless rendered invisible by being looked at directly

The Fat Eaters

Thigh-high, four-legged, fanged furred things which, like all who were once cowards, are now excessively brave. The crocodile remembers them as upstarts rewarded by sheer fortune. They know that they are among those who have inherited the earth.

AC 14, HD 1+1, AB +2, No. Appearing: 2d20
*Attack mindlessly with complete confidence
*Can bite for 1d6 damage and will latch on, causing d2 damage per round, until killed
*Will stop to devour meat, or the body of any foe slain, within 60'

Thursday 2 June 2016

Dreams Beneath the Ice

Floating on the wide ocean in its long-ago youth, the crocodile drifted in search of new places, new horizons, new sources of food. It was growing and felt the insatiable need to grow further. It was frightened of nothing. As it swam South it came across an archipelago of small islands, populated by the savage reptilian ancestors of penguins and whales, where, exhausted from its voyage, it slumbered. It slept for centuries - perhaps milennia - in a burrow it dug into the hot soil, recovering its strength.

But as it slept the world, as its capricious nature, grew cold. It was at the zenith of its heat, at the very point of entering one of its periodic flirtations with the frozen. Ice began spread across the ocean surfaces. Creeping like fingers. It reached the crocodile's archipelago, and grew over it like a moss. As the crocodile slept, the world outside became encased in ice. The beast's heart gradually slowed until it pumped just once or twice an hour; its breath faded to nothing. It felt little of this. It dreamed, though. It dreamed of ice and wind and cold grey seas, and the creatures it had seen in the Southern oceans and its life so far - rendered strange by the warping power of sleep. It dreamed of its burrow on its small island home, and that became the world: a world beneath the frozen pressure of an ice sheet which the crocodile never saw but somehow felt.

Six hundred thousand years later, when that world had thawed, it awoke.

Burrowing Spite: The Dreams of an Ancestral Whale Worm

Finned and flippered, half-mammalian, and almost the size of the crocodile itself - there were rivals swimming in those ancient seas. The crocodile fought them, despised them, and knew that they despised him. He dreamed of them too, in his hibernation beneath the surface of the earth. He dreamed of them burrowing through the ice towards him like toothed, muscular worms; burrowing ever downwards; burrowing through glacial barriers into the frozen earth above its head. They appear in its memory that way: not sea beasts but grey and perpetual diggers and tunnelers snaking through hard surfaces in constant and perpetual drilling search for those which they hate. Smaller than they were in the real world: somewhat longer than a man is tall. But also nastier than they were, too. Burrowing spite, squirming through the ice and rock.

HD 4+1, AC 16, AB +5, No. Appearing: 1d6
*Can bite for 2d6 damage; on a failed save vs. death a limb of the target is also torn off (roll 1d4 to determine)
*Can burrow through solid rock at half normal movement rate
*Can see in the dark
*Is immune to cold-based attacks

Picture this. Tunneling through ice and rock towards you.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Why Write Reviews?

I've not made a great habit of writing reviews on the blog. In fact it was sort of a policy of mine initially that I wasn't going to do them. I've let that slip from time to time because a great product or other has caught my attention, and also because, let's face it, Yoon-Suin benefited hugely from very kind reviewers who gave their time to write about it in detail; it would therefore be pretty churlish of me to object to reviews in principle - not to mention bad karma.

That said, my friend Patrick (I think I have known Patrick and been playing games with him since at least 2010, which is kind of terrifying) recently posted an interview with Bryce Lynch, the man behind Ten Foot Pole - one of the best and most rigorous RPG review sites on the internet. And this gives me the opportunity to think and write about reviews in general.

When the subject of reviews of "OSR" type products comes up, one of the first things that will pop out of somebody's mouth is that there is almost no proper critical engagement with the work, and everything is just unthinking and uninformative enthusiasm. I've never had a huge problem with this. In fact, I think of it as an evolutionary process of a kind. The products that people buy and like, get eulogised to the heavens. The products that people buy and dislike just don't really get talked about. Thus by a process of natural selection you tend to end up hearing about the signal and not hearing about the noise.

The natural response to this is that without critique you will tend to get work that doesn't push boundaries, innovate, or satisfy needs. To which the quick answer is: Have you read Fire on the Velvet Horizon? Castle Gargantua? A Red and Pleasant Land? And the long answer is: Seriously, you think boundaries get pushed by having lots of critics? Have you seen any film at the cinema lately? We now have more film critics than ever before, with more access to bigger audiences (in fact everybody is a film critic these days, spewing opinions onto the internet in volumes inconceivable 20 years ago). Does it strike you that this has been a boon for innovation and quality in Hollywood?

I also think there is something about creator-owned art which ought to insulate itself from harsh or rigorous critique. There is nothing to be gained by giving a kicking to something produced as a labour of love by somebody in the evenings and weekends. In fact, since the creation of labour of love products is so uncynical and fundamentally good-hearted in 99.9% of cases, I see no problem at all in the adage that if you can't say anything nice, you shouldn't say anything. I would rather review the things I like and hold them up as examples of best practice, and simply not mention the rest.

None of this holds true for "professional" products produced by the big companies, of course. But I don't buy any of those. My review for all of them is: don't waste your money. There's a rebuttable presumption that they are shite.