Wednesday 27 June 2018

The Brothers Squamous: The Brothers' Golems

In the previous post in this series, there was some discussion about the different types of golems in the dungeon. Here are some more thoughts:

Each brother has two different types of golem servants (again, I don't want to over-egg the trifecta motif too much), but there are different sub-types of each, all formed to perform one specific category of task and all of whom cooperate with each other to a certain extent in doing so. The snag, of course, is that the dungeon no longer resembles the dungeon they were created to work in, and this results in many unintended consequences.

Oriens was the first brother to emerge from his egg, at dawn. Ever since, his interests have been in new beginnings, in births, in youth, in novelty, in the future, in the East, in openness, in revelation.

From the morning mist and the dawn light he created golems. Those formed from the dawn light are ethereal and quick; the mist golems are silent and still - but both are transient: they form, dissipate, and re-form continually, shifting in and out of existence as they go about their tasks.

Examples of different sub-types of these golems include:

  • Sentinels - mist golems who watch 
  • Stalkers - mist golems who follow intruders
  • Revealers - dawn light golems who seek out things which are hiding or hidden
  • Prospectors - dawn light golems who move more quickly than time itself 
  • Reproducers - mist golems who create new mist golems, endlessly

Meridies was the second brother to emerge, at noon. His interests are in heat, in light, in the present, in action, in energy, in the sun.

He created golems from the noon light and from plants, which flourish in it. Those formed from the noon light are hot and bright; those created from plants are inexorable and strong - both types are powerful and dangerous, exerting the hideous might of the natural world.

Examples of different sub-types include:

  • Searers - noon light golems who cleanse entire chambers with their heat
  • Structurers - plant golems who prevent the dungeon collapsing with their tensile strength
  • Re-builders - plant golems who repair damaged corridors and chambers
  • Constrainers - plant golems which hold things still
  • Scorchers - noon light golems which blast and burn 

Vespara was the last brother to emerge, at dusk. His interests are in endings, in deaths, in the past, in slowness, in closure, in concealment.

His golems are made from the dusk light and from stone. Those created from the dusk light are creeping and hidden; those created from stone are implacable and resilient - both types are there to stop, to finish, and to close.

Examples of different sub-types include:

  • Ambushers - dusk light golems who hide in shadow and strike at those who pass
  • Barriers - stone golems who use their bodies to close off corridors and doorways 
  • Concealers - dusk light golems who hide things Vespara specified must remain unseen
  • Dismantlers - stone golems who collapse chambers and corridors 

Monday 18 June 2018

The Homogenization of D&D

Ease of communication promotes assimilation. You only have to look around you for a few seconds to notice that. TV and the internet are bringing us all together at an astonishing rate. Whether you live in New York, Paris, London or Tokyo, your life experience is nowadays almost identical. The only differences are which paintings are in what museums and which language the street signs are in.

I exaggerate slightly. But not by much.

Since the World Cup is on at the moment, we can use football as an example. In case you're not familiar with the famous "Brazil/Zaire free kick incident" of 1974, watch this video:

At the time, it was widely believed that the player in question, Mwepu Ilunga, made this mistake because in Zairian football they didn't take free kicks as the "official rules" dictated. This story doesn't actually seem to be true: the player in question later said he did it hoping to get sent off, as a protest because he and his team mates weren't being paid properly by the Zairian footballing authorities. (There's also an apocryphal tale that gets bandied around holding that the Zairian players had been threatened with death by Mobuto Sese Soko if they lost the game by more than 3-0 and either the pressure got to Ilunga, or he was desperate to try to waste time and prevent the Brazilians scoring again.) But it illustrates a point: at that time, football was played quite differently in different parts of the world. It was rare for players to move overseas to play football, and there were radically different playing styles in England, Scotland, Italy, Brazil, and so on. It was only 20 years prior to the Ilunga free kick that Hungary had revolutionised international football by creating their new "WW" system and suddenly unleashing it on the unsuspecting English; it was possible for them to do this because nobody in England had a clue what was going on in Hungarian football. It was thus entirely possible for a viewing audience in 1974 to imagine that in Zaire they had different rules for free kicks: it's a reflection of how diverse the public understood international football to be

It wouldn't be possible nowadays. Football has globalized, and as it has globalized it has homogenized. I sit here writing this blog entry watching Brazil v Switzerland. Most of the players on both teams play together or against each other regularly in English, Spanish, German or Italian club football. Their club teams and international teams use the same or very similar formations. The two sides both emphasise the same qualities in players. In 1974 a tie between Brazil and Switzerland would have showcased two very different styles. Now, they're basically the same.

The same will happen with D&D. It is happening now. When I was a kid, the only frames of reference you had for understanding what D&D was actually like were the people around you who introduced you to the game, the page long "example of play" in the PHB, what you could glean from various hints and asides in the text of the rules themselves, and maybe the little "choose your own adventure" style intro in Red Box Basic. That was it. Other than that, you were on your own: D&D was what you and your friends made of it.

Think of a new player nowadays. You can go online and watch Will Wheaton, or a thousand other people, actually play sessions of D&D right in front of your very eyes. You can read forums, blogs, and other online resources discussing different play styles in intricate detail. You can directly contact many RPG designers through social media. You can go on Tumblr or Twitter and heap abuse on people who don't conform to what you think D&D is about. The texture of your introduction to the game, as a neophyte, is utterly different to what it was in 1985. 

D&D will become like football. It's not that all games will be the same, and it's not that there won't be innovations. It's that we'll end up with largely the same play styles dominating (some people will prefer "narrative" style games versus "OSR" style games, just like some football teams play a 4-2-3-1 versus a 3-4-3 or play an attacking game versus a counter-attacking style, but they will deploy those styles in homogenous ways) and there will be much, much, much less variety than there once was.

What happens when your touchstone for "what D&D is like" ends up being Will Wheaton and not, say, your friend's older brother and his mates (which was my introduction to the game)? A more significant question than can be dealt with in a blogpost, probably. Switzerland have just equalised and it's got interesting, so I'll leave it up to you to deal with in the comments. 

Tuesday 12 June 2018

The War-[x] Game

Put the word "chaos" in front of almost any animal name (or any object, pretty much) and instantly you get a monster idea. Try it. Chaos butterfly. Chaos dog. Chaos toad. Chaos cow. 

The same is also true of "war". War bat. War hippo. War heron. War owl. 

What I like about the "war-[x]" gambit is that you don't just get a cool-sounding monster name. You get an implied setting and culture surrounding it too. What society has war bats? Maybe a race of troglodytic jungle cave men who use their war bats, trained to fly into people's faces, to blind enemy warriors. What about war hippos? Clearly one that resembles Ancient Egypt, Nubia, or maybe Great Zimbabwe. Its elite warrior class, its knights, ride around on hippos and are even able to use them to travel up and down rivers (legends still tell of a famous battle in which an army of war hippos, together with knights, crossed the sea to sack a city of the Ancient Greece analogue in the setting). War herons are trained by a marsh-dwelling people to peck out the kneecaps or pierce the feet of intruders as they pass by thick reed beds. War owls are used by a society of nocturnal elves to scratch out the eyes of the foolish humans who enter their forests - or maybe to hunt down and devour pixies.

Try it and see. 

Monday 11 June 2018

Lay a Little Egg for Me

Today we visited some friends in the countryside who keep, among other things, chickens. They have a flock of about a dozen of them, and the birds are free to roam across a large corner of an orchard which must be very close to chicken paradise: nice cool shade from the trees with a few spots of sun here and there, all the food and water they can drink, lots of grassy areas to roam around in, and shelter from the elements.

But chicken paradise, it turns out, is actually something close to HELL: a dystopian nightmare of viciously and vigorously enforced social hierarchy from which nobody can escape, characterised by unprovoked and brutal beatings, theft of food, sexual assault, and constant unrelenting low-level bullying and violence.

Animals do not have morals. But even within that context, chickens take amorality to the extreme.

They are also probably the scariest non-dangerous-to-humans farmyard animal. They are, to all intents and purposes, miniature velociraptors, and the link to the dinosaurs is absolutely transparent and clear as soon as you spend any time watching them - the only thing they really lack is teeth. The chickens at my friend's farm spent most of the afternoon stalking and catching flies through areas of long grass in their little domain. Watching them doing this was like a case study in efficient predation. Those flies had no chance. Each chicken was like a T-rex, striding back and forth with constant twitching head movements until it fixated on a fly landing on a blade of grass, whereupon it would dart its head forward with such speed that not even a blue bottle could escape. It wasn't hard at all to imagine what the results would be if those birds were 8 feet tall and became interested in the taste of human flesh. They would be ruling the planet within months and we would be laying eggs for them.

I missed a trick with chickens in Yoon-Suin. Our modern domesticated animals are descendants of the Red Junglefowl, a wild bird whose range almost directly maps to the regions of the world which were its geographic inspiration. I should have done something with that. In a fantasy setting, a race of chicken-men could be like orcs: a being with a society that prioritizes only selfishness, where might makes right, and where the only respected value is the pecking order - literally.


HD 2+2
AC 5
#ATT 2
DMG 1d4/1d6 (peck/gouge)
Move 180
ML 7
*Chicken-men can fly clumsily for up to 60' but need to land and then rest for 3 rounds afterwards.
*Chicken-men attack with a peck and a gouge from a taloned foot. They can instead sacrifice making those attacks in order to either:
1) Use both feet to trample and pin a human-sized-or smaller opponent to the ground; if they hit successfully they pull their target to the ground and pin it. This does no damage but in subsequent rounds the chicken-man can peck the head, doing 2d4+2 damage. The chicken-man will let go if hit and wounded.
2) Buffet with the wings. This hits any enemy in a semi-circular arc in front of the chicken automatically, doing 1d2 damage.

Thursday 7 June 2018

D&D, Bourdieu, and Surfing

I am not an anthropologist, sociologist, psychologist or indeed anybody whose views you should take remotely seriously. I begin that post with that disclaimer. That said, I wonder why it is that, since roughly the turn of the 21st century, "geek culture" has caught on and become increasingly mainstream (recognising that being a "geek" is by no means the same thing in 2018 as it was in 1988). I suppose a conventional explanation for this might be that it's thanks to certain notable media successes, like the Lord of the Rings films, The Big Bang Theory, the various Marvel and Warner Bros comic and superhero tie-ins, all of which have made it okay to be into science fiction and fantasy.

I wonder whether the more realistic explanation is that social capital (and actual capital) increasingly accrues, in the knowledge economy, to people who are in one sense or another "geeky". Not to get all Bourdieu about it, but liking geeky stuff has become an act of social positioning: it has become associated with wealth and status in a way in which it never was when I wur a lad. It's not that the decision to define oneself as a geek is deliberate in that way. But it has become attractive for those reasons.

Which would partly explain why (see my previous post) playing D&D is now apparently common and socially acceptable at posh universities attended by young people who will be successful in future and running the country and all that jazz.

In other words - and I don't think is remotely deliberate - Peter Jackson just happened to make a trilogy of films for which the timing was absolutely perfect: he was riding a wave which nobody else had really seen coming either and happened to catch it just as it was cresting. It's still on its way to shore now and WotC are now riding it too.

Wednesday 6 June 2018

Report from the Field

I recently had a (successful, thanks for asking) job interview at one of the UK's best universities (top 10 on all the ranking lists I'm aware of - that should help you stalkers out there narrow me down somewhat). While there, I took the opportunity to browse through their campus bookshop. Sure enough, nestled among all the textbooks on endocrinology and financial risk management; the medieval French literature and obscure theological tomes; the experimental postmodern novels and historical treatises on trade unions in Uruguay in the 1870-1890 period; etc., I found an entire bookcase - not a shelf, a bookcase - of 5th edition D&D books.

There can only be one conclusion, which I arrive at hastily and without any sort of empirical evidence beyond this anecdote: D&D is getting popular again.

Not hugely popular, I think. I doubt we'll get back to heady days of the 1980s and 1990s when British bookshops and even music shops used to have entire, vast sections of RPG rulebooks and supplements for spotty teenaged boys to browse. But things are happening for 5th edition in a way that I don't think they happened for editions 3 and 4. Whisper it, but D&D is almost in the cultural zeitgeist - for all my loathing of geek culture and all it entails, there is no denying its power and momentum.

A point of comparison: when I left home to go to university myself, back in 1999, I had already "grown out" of RPGs a few years earlier and wouldn't have dreamed of getting involved in them during my time as a student. (I returned to the fold in the mid-late 2000s.) The idea of RPG books being available in campus bookshops... it would have been unthinkable. The kind of student who exists nowadays - the self-identifying geek with the fashionably naff glasses, the t-shirt with its ironic and unfunny slogan, the so-not-chic-they're-chic Doc Martens, etc., you know the sort - simply didn't exist. There were plenty of nerds, but they either hid it more or less successfully (my attempted strategy) or were so utterly socially isolated, so far beyond the periphery of polite society that they were figuratively and might as well literally have been kobolds, that it didn't matter.

Now you can not only buy D&D books in prestigious universities that very posh people go to. You can (I assume) buy them without shame and even, possibly, in a way, you can even do it and be considered cool.

The times they are a-changin'.

Tuesday 5 June 2018

Random Mythical Wizards in 7th Century Northern Japan

The forests of the Emishi are home to wizards and warlocks – solitary men of magic able to manipulate others’ minds, the land around them, and even death itself. These malevolent tricksters use these powers for their own pleasure, or in order to visit pain and sorrow on those they feel have wronged them: they only ever act without malice when they can benefit directly from acting against their true nature.

All wizards have 1d6+4 HD and spells as listed in the “Powers” column. Their servants are utterly loyal and can carry messages and perform other tasks appropriate to their nature - such as holding objects, stealing items, scouting, and so on. Wizards have the following treasures: Textiles x 1, Jewelery x 2, Magic x 2, Weapons x 1.

Servants (1d3 types)
Liar. The wizard spreads malice through convincing unfortunates of things that are not true.  (Charm Person, Fool’s Gold, Forget, Magic Mouth, ESP,  Suggestion, Tongues, Hypnotism, Misdirection, False Seeing)
At the top of an extremely tall tree in a crude tree house – a platform and bivouac. The wizard is able to climb up and down trees, and leap between them, with unnatural grace and strength.
Moths. Can scatter powder in their air from their wings as they fly, to cause the effects of a sleep, slow or stinking cloud spell. The wizard releases the moths from his clothing and they scatter their powder over an area of a 12 yard sphere within 100 yards of the wizard's location. The wizard has three moth swarms, each with the different spell-effect type and each of which moves at 90.
The wizard has targeted a prominent NPC in a nearby Emishi village for his malice.
Trickster. The wizard spreads malice through illusions and phantasms to terrify, confuse, or upset the unwary. (Audible Glamer, Change Self, Ventriloquism, Phantasmal Force, Improved Phantasmal Force, Mirror Image, Hallucinatory Terrain, Spectral Force, Confusion, Maze)
On a tiny island in a lake, just barely big enough for a clump of trees partially concealing his hut. The wizard can swim unnaturally quickly (at 180) and breathe underwater.
Woodpeckers. 1d3+1 in number. Together they can forego making an action to use their hammering on a tree to summon aid (as per the Animal Summoning II spell) once per day. They must all act in unison to do this.
The wizard wants a rare magical item (pick or create one, or roll randomly on the Magic Treasure List) and will help anyone who gets it for him.
Thief. The wizard simply steals things – items with the most sentimental value being best of all. (Pass Without Trace, Find Traps, Detect Magic, Jump, Invisibility, Knock, Feign Death, Dig, Blink, Dimension Door, Clairvoyance)
The wizard has no lair and roams about nomadically – he does not sleep and wears all his possessions. He cannot be tracked and will only be encountered randomly – unless he chooses to be found. 
Snakes. If the wizard is encountered outdoors, and is endangered, snakes strike. This happens once: anyone the wizard perceives as a threat within 50 yards, up to a total of 8 people, is targeted. Each must save vs poison or be paralysed and suffer hallucinations for 1d3 days.
The wizard was recently foiled in his plans by a local prominent NPC and will help anyone who brings that person to him dead or (preferably) alive.
Murderer. Quite simply, the wizard enjoys taking life. (Hold Person, Poison, Cause Serious Wounds, Cause Critical Wounds, Finger of Death)
In a deep cave in a cliff face, covered in hanging ivy. The wizard can see perfectly in the dark and is never surprised in his lair.
Owls. Familiars which bestow the wizard ‘s enemies with misfortune. There are three owls. The first may cast Feeblemind once per day. The second may cast Emotion once per day. The third may cast Confusion once per day.
The wizard has a rival nearby and the two are locked in war.
Seducer. The wizard seduces women (or men) to break hearts, disrupt family harmony, and humiliate cuckolds. (Charm Person, Suggestion, Command, Change Self, ESP, Friends, Hypnotism, False Seeing)
In a hollow underneath a huge moss-covered boulder, accessible only through a crack in the top. The wizard can shrink or enlarge himself three times per day.
Sparrows. A flock of tiny fluttering feathered sprites who, when acting together, form into a swirling swarm of razor-sharp wings that tear through flesh, bone and even steel. This acts as the equivalent of a Blade Barrier spell.
The wizard wants escorts to take him up a mountain, to an island off the coast, or another place that is difficult to access, in order to perform a ritual of some kind.
Enslaver. The wizard enjoys holding power over others and forcing them to obey his commands. (Charm Person, Suggestion, Command, Mass Suggestion, Hold Person, Paralysation, ESP)
In a cave behind a 20-metre tall waterfall with sheer cliffs on either side. The wizard can spider climb at will.
Monkey. A calm, sage-like simian with malevolent eyes who provides the wizard with a link to the world of the gods and spirits. He can cast one spell once a day from each of the cleric and druid spell lists up to 5th level.
The wizard senses the presence of the PCs as “strangers” and targets them.
Tormentor. The wizard derives satisfaction from the infliction of pain which does not kill. (Hold Person, Cause Light Wounds, Cause Serious Wounds, Shocking Grasp, Burning Hands, Scare)
On a hill top above an almost-sheer slope of scree; the wizard is as sure-of-foot as a goat and moves perfectly silently; he always surprises opponents except on a 1 in 10.
Cicadas. These hum, buzz, whir and chitter across a radius of 30’, causing deafness, producing silence throughout the radius, and causing debilitating headaches which paralyse on a failed save for the duration of the song. The song is continuous but the cicadas must break for one round in every 6.
The wizard is in the midst of a struggle for territory with an animal spirit.
Spoiler. The wizard’s pleasure comes from destroying that which is beautiful or creative, or simply causing the innocent to despair. (Bestow Curse, Putrefy Food & Drink, Cause Disease, Cause Blindness, Produce Flame, Insect Plague, Disintegrate, Transmute Rock to Mud)
In a village, Yamato fort, or other settled place. The wizard can disguise himself perfectly and lives hiding in plain sight. He can wear other disguises to resemble almost anyone he meets.
Flies. A swarm of 3d10 iridescent green flies which explode with blue flame on striking one of the wizard’s enemies. This destroys the fly and does 2d8 damage, as well as igniting any flammable material within 1 yard. The fly must successfully roll to hit (as a 1 HD monster). The wizard can summon new flies once per month.
The wizard is in love with a nearby Emishi woman, but he wants her love to be genuinely reciprocal.

Friday 1 June 2018

The Brothers Squamous: Who Are They?

This post is the second in an ongoing series.

Three green dragons, all brothers, who have built a treasure house together. Each needs to be different. Each also needs to be a rival of the others.

The tonal palette of The Brothers Squamous is, as I decided in yesterday's post, North-West European. Giving the dragons Latinate names is an easy way, then, to make them distinctive. But their names have to stem from their nature. What is each dragon associated with?

Since one of the "trifectas" of golem types in the dungeon is morning, noon and evening light, I think that having each brother associated with either the dawn, noon or dusk makes sense, and also sets sparks of ideas off in my head. Maybe all of them emerged from their eggs on the same day, with one in the morning, one at noon, and one in the evening, and each has associated with that time of day ever since. (Perhaps their unacknowledged sister is the night?)

I think, then, I will call these dragons Oriens, for the dawn, Meridies, for noon, and Vespera, for the evening.

Oriens is interested in new beginnings, in births, in youth, in novelty, in the future, in the East, in openness, in revelation.

Meridies is interested in heat, in light, in the present, in action, in energy, in the sun.

Vespera is interested in endings, in deaths, in the past, in slowness, in closure, in concealment.

Their respective regions of the dungeon will reflect those characteristics - with the caveat that the brothers have all been sleeping for a very long time and the dungeon they created is no longer as they remember it.

I also did some thinking today about geography, and decided I didn't want to over-egg the importance of the number "three". Hence, the dungeon is just on an island in a lake which is itself on an island in a lake. There are, the internet tells me, a few of these in the world - here is a picture of one on the Philippines:

It would make sense, I'm sure you will agree, if the outer island had something WEIRD about it. More on that tomorrow.