Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Tiptoe into Nomo

Thomas Cole's Destruction (1836) from Course of Empire

I'm deep into writing the Nomo hex crawl and thought I'd share a few of the encounters with you. I'm having fun writing it, combining a bit of the late Roman Empire + Byzantium about to fall, and running my Latin through a Gaulish filter to make it familiar and strange at the same time. Just north of Nomo's heartland is the Crimson Waste, a desert that used to be a green and pleasant empire called Irem. The Iremites got into a devil worship and ultimately were destroyed in a war with the Nabu Empire (which you might have met in my Wyvern Coast/Nabu hex crawl from way back in NOD 1 to 3). Now that land is roamed by their descendants, the Warudi nomads, with a few monasteries and settlements that were spared in the cataclysm.

Lots of casual research goes into these things, so I always learn a few things. At the moment, I'm agonizing over Nomo's legions and their emblems, mottoes and cohorts and such.

Anyhow ... on with the show:

0411 Glassy Lake | Monster

This hex holds a vast, pristine lake with a glassy surface that seems unaffected by the wind. The banks are thick with acacias and great clouds of butterflies. At the center of the island there is a small, rocky island topped by a pretty little stronghold of lavender stone, with latticed windows and crenelations topped by golden pyramids. Splashing around the base of the island are pretty children – nixies – who sometimes climb the steps of the stronghold, which descend into the water, and slide through the doors.

Within the stronghold, a tower keep, which the nixies are pledged to defend, there is a throne of crushed shell, tall and fine, on which sits a woman composed of living glass. Princess Vyrna is the spirit of the lake, which was once much larger and much beloved by the Iremites. She was once a nixie queen, but took on her present form when she made a deal with the devil (literally) to save what remains of her home from the cataclysm. At night, the nixies of the lake take on a demonic aspect, and commit horrors upon any foolish enough to be found in the stronghold.

0512 The Snake Women Cometh | Monster

The desert sands here funnel into a deep cave of basalt. As one proceeds into the earth, about 500 feet, the air becomes warm and damp, and pools form on the floor. This opens into several interlocked caverns that are very wet and warm, with opalescent slime growing on the walls in great furry strands. These caves are inhabited by a trio of giant vipers that are controlled by the true masters of the cave complex.

Hidden behind one of these curtains there is a stair that proceeds another 400 feet into the earth. This passage is blocked by an adamantine gate with a complex, electrified lock.

At the base of this winding stair is a complex of ophidian amazons. Tall, statuesque women, they have pale scales that darken to rust on their lower arms and legs and carmine on their fingers and toes. This tribe of warrior-scientists consists of 85 females (lesser ophidians) and 27 smaller males who are left behind to tend the eggs and the machinery that pro-duces the warm, wet air that fills the cave.

In these caves, they work night and day on developing a method to clone themselves using concentrated quintessence, blood and whatever humanoid remains they can recover from their vipers. They have not yet struck upon the proper formula, but when they do, they have plans for Nod.

0610 Dirhab | Stronghold

Dirhab is a dervish abbey from olden times. The abbey is constructed of white marble, pock marked after a thousand years of windblown sand. The walls are 40 feet high, and there is a 50-foot tall tower at each corner. The gates of the abbey are composed of ebony, and are 1 foot thick, 10 feet tall and can only be opened using a winch found on the inside.

Within the front gate there is a broad courtyard, rectangular, that supports numerous flowering bushes. The courtyard is floored in reddish tiles decorated with white lilies. On the walls are mosaics of Marduk’s battle with Tiamat and Kingu, and his creation of humanity.

From the courtyard, one can pass into the living quarters and temple of the order. The buildings that surround the courtyard are three stories tall. The halls are hung with rich tapestries depicting the destruction of Irem by avenging angels raining down fire and the scattering of the Warudi across the Crimson Waste. In each of the towers is a large bell of meteoric iron, the dervishes striking them at noon and midnight to call the order and their families to prayer.

In a second courtyard, well-protected, are kept dozens of small white goats with pearly horns. These goats are kept as sacred animals, and are feted on Marduk’s holy day from silver bowls while the priests dance and play flutes carved from lapis lazuli.

The patriarch of the order is old Gazim (NG human cleric 10), whose body has twisted as he has grown older. He has lived through 500 summers, as all of the dervishes are extremely long-lived due to the blessing of Marduk.

The abbey houses 18 dervish priests, 40 dervishes and 180 noncombatants. The dervishes are mostly armed with shields and kaskaras, though 20 of them carry light crossbows and wear leather armor. They all fight like berserkers.

0927 The Sea Phantoms | City-State

Deep beneath the waves of this hex there stands a tall spire, raised from the sea floor, 40 feet thick at the base and 200 feet tall, rounded at the top and carved from top to bottom with skulls in an alien, geometric design.

Around this spire is a town of 1,500 sea phantoms, men and women of the Ethereal Plane with only the merest presence on the Material Plane. These people are not undead, but they are insubstantial and appear indistinct to people who dwell wholly on the Material.

These sea phantoms survive on the dying screams and lamentations of doomed sailors, though they are never the cause of these dooms. They merely float to the surface when they detect fear, and holding out their hazy hands collect these collected sufferings in the form of a black nodule that is not unlike a large, black pearl. They place these pearls, which exist on both the Material and Ethereal Planes, in the eye sockets of those aforementioned skulls. These pearls bathe the Ethereal Plane in a strange radiation which nourishes and sustains the enigmatic sea phantoms.

On the Ethereal, the sea phantoms appear as normal human beings with pallid skin, silvery hair and slate grey eyes. They dress in gauzy robes and carry thin silver swords and daggers at their sides to fend off ethereal marauders and other such dangers of their plane. On the Material Plane, they appear as vague, shimmering outlines of human beings, with eyes like faint lights gleaming through a thick fog, and their voices, normally quite distinct, sound hollow and wispy. Their buildings and houses look like white shapes seen through a thick fog bank, and feel to those on the Material Plane like cold, slushy water.

The sea phantoms are not evil, nor are they good. They want nothing from the Material Plane beyond the desperation of doomed men and women. They seek no agency over the material world, but are willing to communicate the secrets they have gathered to people if they are willing to pass through to the Ethereal Plane with rich gifts.

1719 Natanos | Stronghold

Natanos is a small fishing hamlet (pop. 50) on the shores of the Green Sea. The hamlet consists of several stone cottages on a gentle rise overlooking the beach. Within the hamlet on will find a mysterious staircase between two buildings. The stairs are painted many colors and seem to climb nowhere. Numerous orange cats sit on the stairs.

The cats are intelligent, and live with the sorceress Philia. The stairs head up to her tower, which is tucked between dimensions. The tower, if one could see it, is about 60 feet tall and pure white, topped with a conical azure roof. The interior is elegant and simple, with many bookshelves, blue carpets and furniture that is best described as “Danish modern”.

One chamber holds a small gallery of abstract art, all of it carved from blue stone, ranging from light to very dark blue. Another holds a pool of sea water and an elegant white boat – the pool serves as a portal to the sea, and is activated by pouring wine mixed with a drop of blood into the pool. All of the chambers equipped with floor to ceiling mirrors, for the only thing Philia loves more than her cats is her own face.

Philia is in the middle of the process of forging a magic staff, and she is using the pounding surf and sea winds to do it. The staff is being held by a living statue that she has sent out into the waves – only its forearm and hand, and the staff, are visible to those on the beach, and one might guess it is nothing but a bit of driftwood.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Lest We Forget [Grit & Vigor]

Today is Veterans' Day (formerly Armistice Day) in the U.S. of A. First and foremost, I offer my thanks to those who have served - God bless you.

Since this is a game blog, I now offer Grit & Vigor stats for a couple genuine war heroes, Sgt. Alvin York and Audie Murphy.

Sgt. Alvin York

Class: Fighter
Level: 4
Hit Points: 26

Strength: 14 / +1
Intelligence: 9
Wisdom: 12
Dexterity: 13 / +1
Constitution: 16 / +2
Charisma: 11

Feats: Dodge, Elusive Target, Point Blank Shot

Knacks: Climb Sheer Surfaces

Alvin York was an odd choice for military heroism. When he reported for military duty during the First World War, he let his superiors know that, as a Christian, he didn't believe that he could take part in fighting.

After many discussions with the camp chaplain, and a lot of soul searching, he finally decided that a Christian could fight if called to do so. With that, he was off to Europe, where he soon earned a Medal of Honor for, according to Wikipedia, "leading an attack on a German machine gun nest, taking 35 machine guns, killing at least 28 German soldiers, and capturing 132 others".


Audie Murphy

Class: Fighter
Level: 5
Hit Points: 35

Strength: 13 / +1
Intelligence: 10
Wisdom: 11
Dexterity: 16 / +2
Constitution: 13 / +1
Charisma: 12

Feats: Ace Shot, Diehard, Point Blank Shot, Precise Shot

Knacks: Electronics, Handle Animals

Skills: Demolitions

What Audie Murphy did in real life would seem unbelievable if you saw it in a movie. Serving in the U.S. Army in the Second World War in Italy, he took part in many distinguished acts of heroism. Via Wikipedia, here's what earned him the Medal of Honor:

"The Germans scored a direct hit on an M10 tank destroyer, setting it alight, forcing the crew to abandon it. Murphy ordered his men to retreat to positions in the woods, remaining alone at his post, shooting his M1 carbine and directing artillery fire via his field radio while the Germans aimed fire directly at his position. Murphy mounted the abandoned, burning tank destroyer and began firing its .50 caliber machine gun at the advancing Germans, killing a squad crawling through a ditch towards him. For an hour, Murphy stood on the flaming tank destroyer returning German fire from foot soldiers and advancing tanks, killing or wounding 50 Germans. He sustained a leg wound during his stand, and stopped only after he ran out of ammunition. Murphy rejoined his men, disregarding his own wound, and led them back to repel the Germans. He insisted on remaining with his men while his wounds were treated. For his actions that day, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. The 3rd Infantry Division was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions at the Colmar Pocket, giving Murphy a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for the emblem."

This was after several bouts of malaria and losing a bit of hip muscle to gangrene. Murphy left the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant, and later achieved the rank of Major with the Texas Army National Guard.

Happy Veteran's Day to all you veterans!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Get Bleeped [New Monster]

Monsters can come from the unlikeliest places, but this one came from a doodle (see below) on a scratchpad while I was on a conference call.

Bleep

Never had an art lesson - can you believe it? *
Type: Construct
Size: Small
Hit Dice: 3+1
Armor Class: 16 (20 vs. metal)
Move: Fly 60′
Attack: Zap (5′/1d6 electricity) or slam (1d4 + 1d6 electricity)
Save: 15
Intelligence: Average
Alignment: Neutral (LN)
No. Appearing: 1d4
XP/CL: 300/4

SD—Resistance (acid, fire), immunity (electricity, mind effects)

SP—See below

Bleeps are constructs that hail from the Astral Plane. They materialize on other planes to learn about their ecosystems, recording data and testing inhabitants, before returning from whence they came (wherever that may be). Whether they are in control of themselves, or serve another species, is unknown. Bleeps communicate in a stilted, robotic voice. Due to their time on a given plane recording information, they have a 75% chance to speak the language of any creature they encounter.

Bleeps are surrounded by an electromagnetic field, which gives them an AC 20 against metal objects. Against spells that involve metal hurlants, they enjoy a +3 bonus to saving throws. This also allows them to zap creatures up to five feet away with electricity and their touch is also electrifying.

The bleep's main weapon, though, is its ability to conjure replicas of creatures using pure energy. This acts as the different "summon monster" spells, I through IX. They can use one spell at a time, and while they use that spell, they lose a number of hit points equal to the level of the spell. Thus, a bleep using summon monster IX loses 9 hit points while the spell is active. When the spell is deactivated, the hit points return. If a bleep is destroyed while conjuring a monster, the monster disappears and the bleep, reduced to 0 hit points, does not suddenly pop back to life.

The interior of the construct is something like a geode, being a composition of weird crystals covering the interior of the metal shell. A sphere of ethereal nth metal floats in the center of this metal shell while the monster is functional, held in place by an inner electromagnetic field. When the monster is no longer fuctional, and if it is opened, the nth metal quickly floats upward at a rate of 30 feet per round, probably to never be seen again unless someone has a handy silver net with which to catch it.

--
* This is a lie - I took an art class in high school. I just suck at drawing.

Monday, October 31, 2016

A Few Thoughts on Horror

Virgil Finlay, folks
I'm not an expert on horror. I like some old flicks, but I've never been into the buckets-of-blood stuff and human fear and misery aren't high on my list of things I find entertaining. Nevertheless, I was pondering a few ideas this Halloween about making horror work in games, and thought they might be of use, especially to folks who haven't run too many games. None of these items are mechanics-based, just things to use while narrating/refereeing a game.

1. Be Descriptive

Game mechanics are usually pretty cut-and-dry. Roll d20, if it's above X you hit for damage. If not, you miss. For most games, and most combats, it works well enough to leave it at that. For a horror game, you probably want to embellish. For a game to be scary, you have to make it visceral and to some extent personal for the players, and you don't have the same tricks that are available to authors (i.e. complete control of the action and tempo) and filmmakers (i.e. mood lighting, quick cuts, etc.). Language is one way to do this.

Here's an example, in this case from a non-horror game I'm running on G+. Just some adventurers, plodding across the desert, who run into some weird spires sticking up from the sand. They decide to camp, and find themselves nearly surrounded by weird columns of moving sand - sand things as I called them (I never use actual monster names unless it's pretty obvious or just doesn't matter). The group decides to make a run for it, and I roll some dice and determine that they escape successfully. I could have just written:

"You escape them. What do you want to do now?"

Instead, I wrote:

"You take off across the sands, between the advancing sand things, and feel them crash behind you, as they attempt to close the gaps. They fail, though you can feel the sand on your necks.

As you run, you can feel the sand shifting beneath your feet, as though somebody was trying to pull a carpet from under them, and you can almost sense the swell of golden sands behind you, like a wave preparing to crest and then bash you into the dust.

Luckily, you are swift enough, and after ten solid minutes of adrenaline-fueled running you finally collapse on the sand. All is quite, and you believe that, whatever they were, they are no longer behind you. You no longer see the spires behind you."

Hopefully, that made the game more fun for the players, and leaves them wondering if the encounter is really over (and if you're one of those players ... it might not be).

You can do something similar with horror games - narrate things, especially minor things that aren't really important, for frightening effect. Describe the way things feel, sound and smell, especially if they are robbed of their sight. Linger on the faces of the people with whom they deal - provide clues to what is happening in their minds that can be read in multiple ways.

2. Make It Count

Most role playing games are about conflict, fighting monsters (of some sort) and exploring the unknown. The good news - these are all elements of horror. The bad news - you use these elements every dang time you play. If you walked into a dark alley and run into a beholder, you would be traumatized. For your players, it just means it's game night. Big deal.

So - you need to find a way to make it count. The loss for the characters has to be more than a loss of gold or experience points. All those undead monsters that do level drain are one way to scare players, but you can also put other things in the pot that mean something to the characters, and I mean you need to put them in the pot, not the players themselves. Threaten something that is important to the character because it is important to the player playing the character. A player who gets off on combat but doesn't give a rip about his character's fictional family is not going to react to his fictional parents being threatened by something horrible. Losing a hand, however, might really bug him.

Know your players, figure out what will bother them, what will cause their stomachs to knot, and then use it against them. At least one player and character, maybe more but possibly not all, must be threatened with a loss that will drive them through the game.

3. Hold Things Back

I just told you a minute ago to be descriptive. Not I'm going to tell you to keep silent. Silence in a pen & paper game is the equivalence of darkness in a movie. The players should be groping about, certain that something terrible is happening, but uncertain as to exactly why or how or when. I use the word "or" advisedly. Don't keep them in the dark about everything. Keep one thing - why, how, or when - completely secret. They'll never know until it's too late. Have one of those things obscured but discover-able. The third thing should be evident early in the game.

For example - at midnight, the village of Vark will cease to be. How? It will be swallowed into Hell due to the actions of one person, the local butcher. Why? They'll never know ... but you know it is because of an otherwise innocent act he will perform for an aggrieved widow. All the players will know is that he is the key, and they'll have to keep on guard to stop terrible things from happening.

4. Tension vs. Surprise

This is a tip from Alfred Hitchcock, as regards to making thrillers. I think it is applicable to games, and it requires you to do something you normally do not do.

In his interviews with Truffaut, Hitchcock describes the difference between building tension and using surprise. He uses the example of two people sitting at a table talking. A time bomb is beneath the table.

If you want surprise and shock, you don't let the audience know about the bomb. All of a sudden, there is an explosion. The audience is surprised for a moment, and that is all.

If you want tension, you must let them know the bomb is under the table, and is about the go off. They're now sweating it out, waiting to discover if the characters will find the bomb, or otherwise escape the danger. With this technique, you can keep the audience tensed up for a few minutes rather than for just a split second.

You can find a good example of this in his film Rope, as well as in a sequence in the movie Sabotage.

In a game, you might pull this off by allowing the players, through their characters, witness a dangerous scene without being able to do anything about it. This can get old, though, and takes way a crucial element of the fun of these games, which is that players have a hand in the action.

Another way is to let the players peek into the mechanics of the game. Let them know how much time they have to stop something, and then take them through the process of stopping it. For example - to defuse the bomb that's about to go off requires three rolls of the dice. With each roll, the players get closer to success or death.

To make it even more tense, let them know that they dice they must roll are hidden around the room. They have one minute to find them and roll them. Or present them with three dice of different colors. One grants a +5 bonus to the roll, one a -5 penalty and one no bonus or penalty. Give them a minute in which to decide and roll a dice.

5. The Joys of Paranoia

Here's something I've used in my games. It helps if you have a group of friends playing who want the game to be fun and successful, but with strangers you might be able to bribe them to make it work.

I'll pass a note to a player. It says something like, "Look worried and then make eye contact with me and nod in agreement." If a bribe was necessary, I might add: "You get 500 XP for doing this."

The others now suspect their pal knows something they don't, and they suspect that something is happening beneath their very noses that is dangerous and THEY CANNOT SEE IT! Even worse, their so-called buddy knows and isn't saying anything. Isn't doing anything. WHY ISN'T HE DOING SOMETHING TO WARN US?!

You get the idea. It's a cheap trick and only effective when used sparingly. It helps with creating that "darkness" I mentioned earlier.

6. Provide Enough Rope

Not the "50 feet of" variety, but allow the players to make choices that get them deeper into the horror. With each choice, they are presented with new choices, but those new choices need to get incrementally worse. Since this is a horror game, there doesn't ever need to be a perfectly pure, good choice to make.

These choices, by the way, also help bring about the recriminations among the characters/players that fuel many horror movies. The team has to stick together to survive, but it gets harder and harder to do when those other idiots keep making you do things you didn't want to do and which keep making things worse. You don't want to end friendships, of course, but a little intra-party tension can help make the game work.

7. Oversell It

Here's something I learned from the good old days of comic book covers. I'm talking about the pre-pinup covers - things like this:

Found at Diversions of the Groovy Kind, natch!

You know Ka-Zar is not actually going to die, of course (though Doom might get punched in the face by a mummy) ... but you don't know how things will actually play out in the comic book. I still dig those covers, and they still make me want to read the book to see how the cover is lying to me.

In our case, you start the game by casually mentioning that one of the characters is going to die in this session, you're sure of it. This puts everyone on edge. It might also be a complete lie, but the point is to get them worried.

Of course, sometimes those cover blurbs actually come true ...

... until she returns  as a clone, Spider-Gwen and whatever else Marvel comes up with in the next few years ...



8. The Old Switcheroo

I've mentioned this before, but I'll say it again. If you want to run a Lovecraftian horror game, your worst move is probably pulling Call of Cthulhu out and openly running a session of it for the players. This isn't a dig against the game, but rather a commentary on how Lovecraft (and Poe, and many other horror writers) wrote their books. Those authors wrote stories about how unsuspecting, normal people suddenly found their way into supernatural situations they could not escape without giving something up (sanity, parts of their body, a loved one, etc.).

If you're playing CoC, the one thing the players know (or think they know) is that they're going to run into a Lovecraftian monstrosity. Thus, the game defeats the genre. I've suggested that pulling out the old James Bond RPG would be a great way to run a Lovecraft scenario. Everyone is primed for espionage, and then something odd happens and before they know, it's all spiraling out of control.

Let's use another example from Hitchcock on how to sucker people in. When people went to see Psycho for the first time (and my daughter and her friend recently did this, with no foreknowledge of the movie, so it still works), they saw a movie about a woman stealing money and driving to a hotel to allude the authorities. The woman was the main character. She's on the posters. The movie, obviously, is about what happens to this woman.

And then, a few minutes in, she's brutally murdered and never heard from again.

The old switcheroo. Now the audience doesn't know what the hell is happening, which is exactly the frame of mind Hitchcock wanted them in to sit through the rest of the movie. Take away that which is normal and safe and expected ... and in the case of fantasy games, the routine of the dungeon crawl, as weird and abnormal as it would be in real life, is normal and safe and expected.

The best way to inflict horror upon the players is to make sure they don't know what they're in for. Give them what appears to be a normal dungeon crawl, and let it morph, slowly at first, and then more rapidly, into a horror film. Or, how about capping off a dungeon crawl with a visit to town to buy supplies which turns into something horrible. The game seems to be bog standard. The players are expecting that the real game is the dungeon they're going to delve back into after a quick jaunt to boring old town ... and then everything goes horribly wrong.

If you have some ideas yourself about pulling off a good horror game - especially you referees who have experience with Chill and CoC and other such games - please let me know in the comments, and ...



Thursday, October 20, 2016

Post-Apocalypse of the Gods


This is a notion I've had for a while, sort of simmering on the back burner. I caught an old episode of Hercules Legendary Journeys yesterday though, the one where he meets the Norse gods, and so I got to thinking about it again. What follows is a thumbnail sketch of what might make for an interesting campaign that blends D&D-esque fantasy with Gamma World-esque post-apocalyptic gaming.

Ragnarok

If you've done any reading of the Norse myths, you are undoubtedly aware of Ragnarok - the twilight of the gods. At Ragnarok, Loki leads the giants and other bad guys against the gods, and most of the major "characters" end up dead - Thor and the Midgard serpent kill one another, Odin and Frigga are swallowed by Fenris and he is in turn killed, Loki and Heimdall kill one another. Good stuff, and somewhat unique in western mythology I think. Heck, some obscure movie studio is apparently making a movie about it.

What I always found cool about Ragnarok, though, is that although it was the end of some of the gods and results in a flood that wipes out most of humanity, it is not "The End". There is a post-Ragnarok world just waiting to be explored and conquered!

Post-Ragnarok

From memory - so please excuse any omissions or errors - Balder returns from Hel after Ragnarok to become the new king of the gods. I also remember that Thor's sons, Magni and Modi, inherit their father's hammer - presumably they take up where dad left off as protectors of man and god. In addition, two human beings managed to take shelter in Yggdrasil and were left to repopulate Midgard, so humans are still around.

If we play around with the concept, we can maybe make a fun campaign out of it.

On the fantasy side, we have the gods, and thus we have clerics and magic. We can also preserve at least some of the monsters of mythology - Norse mythology, of course, but monsters from other mythologies are welcome as well. Since we're in a post-apocalyptic setting, we can also throw in all the original weirdness from D&D - green slime, bulettes, beholders, as well as monsters from post-apocalypse settings - maybe Magni and Modi travel around in a chariot pulled by spider-goats?

Like this, only ruined and full of mutant demigods

On the science side, we can borrow from Marvel comics and use an Asgard that is as much science as it is sorcery. Some of that technology was left behind on Midgard, perhaps, but even better stuff is hidden away in Asgard if only some high-level adventurers can figure out how to get to it. The remaining gods - maybe we can call them The New Gods - now dwell on Midgard with humanity (though a bit separated, as the gods always prefer to dwell in gated communities).

Another option would be to set Ragnarok at some point in the near future, thus allowing modern technology to exist in the ruins of the world, ruins that are now visited by the primitive people who have established settlements close to, but not too close to, those ruins, to scavenge for supplies.

The Campaign

The campaign can be set in post-apocalypse Scandinavia/Iceland/Greenland, or you could even use Minnesota. Since the world is flooded in Ragnarok, you can use some maps that show what the geography would look like with higher sea levels - that will keep things just different enough to fool the players for a while and give them the enjoyment of figuring out what world they're exploring.

New towns and cities have sprung up, blending the old and the new. The wilderness is haunted by mutants, worgs and the scattered remnants of the giant races. Perhaps the elves of Alfheim visit now and again - let them be grey elves and beautiful and judgmental - and some of the dwarves survived the apocalypse hidden away in their mountains - let them be duergar and foul and greedy.


Above is a quick sketch of a campaign world, with the sunken city of Lug inhabited by mutant amphibious englishmen (use tritons to make it easy, or sahuagin to make it scary), the Swamp People of old Paris, with their giant frogs, the Gnomes of Zurik hiding away all that gold, the City of Black Bear, which can serve as a tent-pole mega-city-state with legions of warriors threatening more peaceful folk beyond, and of course New Asgard, where the gods and their servants dwell, and from which come the paladins of Balder to spread a new enlightenment among mankind.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Word Up

From "Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves" via Wikipedia
Here are a few ideas on incorporating magical (or at least powerful) words into the treasure tables in your game.

All of these words are potential replacements for the venerable treasure map (which itself is a great piece of treasure). If you're playing a game without treasure maps on the treasure list, you might need to reexamine your life choices. Or, you could just add it to the list of magic scrolls.

Fechtbuchs
"Fechtbuch" is a German word for a book that teaches warriors how to fight with word and illustrations. The fechtbuch concept can be used for all classes, of course, and it occurred to me last night that the value of one of these books could be to grant a character an XP bonus, maybe +5% or +10% at the most, while they are earning XP to gain their new level. When the new level is gained, the book is of no more use to them - they've learned everything they're going to learn from it.

The cursed version would do the opposite - a book written by a fool that makes true learning harder than it should be. Imagine trying to deal with a real hippopotamus after reading some nonsense in an old medieval bestiary.

Passwords
A password gained in one room might help one get past a trap or monster in another room, or even another dungeon. "Swordfish" is a classic from the Marx Brothers movie Horse Feathers, and who can forget "open sesame" (or "open sez me" if you're a Popeye fan).



Passwords can be mundane - as in a word spoken to guards to permit passage past them - or they can be magical, as in a word spoken to disarm a magic trap or lock. Perhaps every lock and trap has a mystic password given to it by its creator during the act of creation, and high level thieves have a knowledge of such passwords. While they use their picks and tools, they also whisper these words to the lock, hoping to find the one that opens it.

The "cursed" version of this would be the word that causes bad things to happen, a' la the infamous "bree-yark" in The Keep on the Borderlands.

Secret Words
Secret words are not all that different from passwords, I suppose, but with them the power of the word is definitely magical. Secret words work on living creatures, including non-sentient creatures. The words are tied to a particular type of creature and they have a single effect. The word can be used one or two or three times before it loses its power.

The effects of a secret word should be non-offensive, and could include making the creature friendly, stopping a charging or pursuing creature in its tracks, or undoing a special attack or defense of the monster (such as "turning off" a medusa's petrifying gaze) for a short period of time.

The mystical word "Nee" comes immediately to mind.

True Names
True names are not terribly different from secret words, though they are potentially more powerful. The idea is that every creature from beyond the mortal realm, demons, devils, demodands, angels, elementals, etc., has a secret true name that permits the speaker control over them. The true name should probably be treated as a spell - thus once spoken, it is forgotten. Otherwise, you're giving an adventurer a pet monster to sic on his enemies, and that's a bit more than any adventurer should get. The word, when spoken to its owner, could act as a command, suggestion or geas spell - whatever makes the GM comfortable.

Rincewind by Paul Kidby, found at Wikipedia
The true name can be used in a summoning spell to bring that specific creature to you (rather than pot luck) and put it under control. If you know the true name but don't know the owner, a GM could give a flat 1% chance that the creature you're speaking to is the owner of the true name you have learned. After all, fantasy stories and fairy tales are full of such odd coincidences. Speaking the true name to the wrong creature, however, might be disastrous - the creature will know what you were trying to do and may resent it.

A good example of a true name is Rumpelstiltskin.

Words of Power
Words of power take things up yet another level. These words are, in effect, the power word spells (and maybe a few others, such as control weather) in a form that anyone can use. Again, you are allowed one use to a customer, and perhaps that use comes with ramifications, as the keepers of cosmic order do not care to have things disordered by irresponsible adventurers.

Conceptually, I'm thinking of these being like the powerful spell that lodged itself in the head of Terry Pratchett's magic-user Rincewind. Have the word of power displace a spell that a character can normally prepare (even clerics) or a skill or maneuver a non-spellcaster can normally use. A thief, for example, learns the power word kill spell, but while it's in her head she cannot move silently, hide in shadows or pick pockets, making her a very effective murderer, but a lousy thief.

The Greek word "logos", from Wikipedia

Friday, October 7, 2016

Secret Ability Scores - My Goofy Idea of the Day

Of course he has an 18 charisma - just ask Juanita and Thelma Lou
I was recently thinking about self-awareness. How many people have you known who were not nearly as charismatic or intelligent as they thought they were? Their failings seem obvious, but are blissfully unaware of them. I thought that this might offer a fun and interesting way for veteran players to liven up their old games.

In most fantasy games, characters have ability scores. These scores are rolled by the player and known to the player. This knowledge plays a role in the player's choice of their character's class or career, and it influences their actions in the game.

But what if players did not know their character's ability scores? Might make for an interesting game, no?

(Or maybe a complete disaster)

It all hinges, to use Blood & Treasure as an example, on wisdom. Wisdom deals with awareness, not only of one's surroundings, but of oneself. A character with even average wisdom should be able to gauge how intelligent and charismatic they are ... and how wise they are. The wise man knows what he knows not, so to speak. Characters with low wisdom, on the other hand, assume natural abilities they do not actually have. If wisdom is low enough, they may even be unaware of their physical limitations. A foolish man can talk himself into anything, after all.

Here's the idea - a player rolls his or her ability scores with their eyes closed. The GM writes them down. If you're rolling ability scores in order, all the better. If not, the player can decide which score gets the highest roll, then the next highest, and so on. There will be some clues if you're doing it this way, but no system is perfect.

In all cases, the player does not know his or her character's wisdom score unless it is 13 or higher. If lower than 13, roll a dice - on a 1-3 they think it's average and on a 4-6 they think it is high.

If the character's Wisdom score is 13 or higher, the player gets to know all of her ability scores.

If the character's Wisdom score is 9 or higher, the player gets to know his physical ability scores and either his intelligence or charisma score (his choice). The mystery score is believed to be high.

If the character's Wisdom score is 6 to 8, they get to know their physical ability scores, but not their mental scores. You just tell them that their intelligence and charisma are high and leave it at that, regardless of the actual score.

If the character's Wisdom score is 3 to 5, they don't know any of their ability scores, but are simply told that they are all high, again, regardless of the actual scores.

Now, this creates a certain difficulty, as classes often have ability score requirements for entry. You could tell the player that their character, who they think has a high intelligence, cannot cut it as a magic-user, of course, but then the player should know they have an intelligence lower than 9.

I can think of a couple ways to go with this:

1) If they pick a class for which they cannot qualify, they instead become a wash-out and end up as a fighter or thief (assuming they can qualify for those classes). They might still act like a wizard or priest, but they won't be and they'll know it and probably resent the hell out of those who actually did enter the class of their choice.

2) Another way to go is to permit them entry into the class with lower scores, and apply an XP penalty to their advancement. Maybe a -10% for every score that isn't up to muster. These are characters who try really hard, but it takes them forever to get the hang of things.

The idea here is to produce Barney Fifes in your game - characters who have to get in over their heads a few times before they slowly figure out their limitations. Characters who insist they should try to decipher the magic rune because they have the highest intelligence, even though their intelligence is actually a '6'. Characters who bumble and stumble a bit, just like we do in real life.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Trouble with Merchants

Depending on what style of fantasy campaign you are designing, merchants can be a problem. In a medieval milieu, they link villages, towns and cities together, providing important lines of communication and making items cheaper by their trade. They make maps and charts and make travel less dangerous and less mysterious. This is fine in a reality-based campaign, of course, but can present problems with a fantasy campaign.

On the other hand, merchants and their travails can be a powerful ally in building a fairy tale world of hundreds of small kingdoms, dangerous, mysterious wilderlands and, in the true Gygaxian spirit, unrealistically expensive equipment if you make them few and far between.

The real world is one in which trade may be about as old as war, or possibly older than organized warfare. In my research into the prehistoric world (i.e. pre-writing, pre-Bronze Age), I was amazed to find that stone beads manufactured in India/Pakistan had found there way at least as far as the Balkans, and that trade between groups over long distances was not terribly rare. Even when human beings had very primitive transportation - no wheels, no horses or other beasts of burden and only the simplest water craft - they managed to trade with one another over sometimes quite long trade routes. Impressive.

Of course, what those prehistoric merchants and their ancient and medieval counterparts did not have to deal with was a fantasy random encounter chart. Sure, there were storms and accidents, and probably some lions, tigers and bears, but no dragons, water elementals, genies, demons, devils or purple worms, not to mention large tribes of humanoids who might just as soon kill you as talk with you. Even a relatively weak demon or devil, immune to normal and silver weapons and with decent magic resistance, could destroy a large caravan protected by men-at-arms.

When we take these factors into account, we can make successful journeys by 0-level or low-level humanoids very rare. In fact, we can make such journeys primarily the activity of mid-level adventurers, with side jaunts into dungeons and the like along the way. Imagine if the average kingdom maybe got visitors from neighboring kingdoms (those within 50 miles, we'll say) once a year, tops. Visits from further away might occur once a decade, or once a century. People who were thought to be mythical - the two-headed purple folk of Hvaroo - might pull up one day in a large galleon loaded with spices and magic no living person in your home kingdom has ever seen, and will probably never see again in their lifetime!

By doing so, we can create a world of very small clusters of settlements - kingdoms, of course, for in fairy tales almost every ruler is a king or queen - separated by tracts of very dangerous wilderness. The settlements don't even need to be very far apart - two or three days journey with dangerous encounters in between can be enough to ruin an expedition, and each ruined expedition makes future expeditions more unlikely due to the loss of money, the loss of key personnel, etc.

Each kingdom must largely rely on its own resources, agricultural, mineral, etc., and this means you can make certain resources or items the specialty of specific kingdoms. Maybe only a few kingdoms have armorers who know how to make full plate armor, most just stick to boring old chainmail or platemail. If you want the full plate, you have to travel. Likewise, certain gemstones required by material components - diamonds are mined in Vardak and since the trade caravans and ships sent there failed to come back, you have to go there yourself to get the large diamond you need to cast the magic spell to blah blah blah. You get the idea.

Of course, we also need to ignore a little more reality and allow these petty kingdoms to develop a level of technology that would generally be impossible without trade. Hey - it's fantasy. We can fudge a few things to get the atmosphere right.

Rare trade means you get to populate your world with dozens of petty kingdoms with their own strange customs, laws and problems. Just as Australia developed some very unique animals due to its separation from other land masses, each kingdom can develop some pretty unique traits due to largely being cut off from the rest of humanity. Some random tables like the ones at Chaotic Shiny can help generate ideas - you can use unique royal titles (all hail the Grand Karnak of Carsonne), come up with one or two strange taboos (everyone knows you must not wear red in the presence of the Queen - off with their heads!), give the place something to be proud of (in Falala we have the world's foremost sage specializing in dragons ) and throw in some fun costumes (it has always been the way to wear hats upside down in Urnok), dialects, currency, cookery, etc. and travel becomes not only more interesting, but also easier to keep track of for players. A string of villages and towns that all have vaguely Medieval French names and customs might be hard to keep track of, but really odd kingdoms will stick in the mind.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dragon by Dragon - August 1981 (52)

With the 2nd edition of Blood & Treasure essentially done (well, almost done), I can get back on track with these Dragon reviews. Number 52 is from August of 1981, and features a Boris Vallejo cover of a butterfly-winged dragon and beautiful naked woman ... which of course is a rarity for a Boris painting. Boris gets a little full article inside the magazine as well.

So - I've got Mystery Science Theater 3000 on the television and a gin gimlet in my belly, and I'm ready to show off the bits and pieces that I found useful and/or inspirational in #52 ...

First and foremost, a nice piece of comic/advertising work by Bill Willingham, one of my favorites from the olden days.


This involves the adventurers Auric, Tirra and the wizard Khellek (who does not appear to be this guy - scroll down a bit). Auric is an ill-armored fighter, Tirra could be a thief or fighter and Khellek is a wizard. They tangle briefly with a jackalwere and then ... to be continued.

The first real article is dedicated to the much maligned cleric class. "The Role of the Cleric - Warriors with Wisdom" is by Robert Plamondon, and it does a nice job of explaining the class, some of its inspirations and ways to play it well. If the image below, by Jim Holloway, doesn't make you want to play the class, I don't know what will ...


The article has a few nice bits that might stir the creative juices of players and GM's out there, such as a list of acts of worship, in order of potency:

1. Thinking religious thoughts.
2. Formal prayer.
3. Attending rites or church services.
4. Feasts, festivals, fasts, self-punishment, vigils- as part of religious rites.
5. Sacrifice of valuables.
6. Dying in a holy conflict.
7. Killing an enemy in a holy conflict.
8. Sacrifice of an unbeliever.
9. Sacrifice of an unwilling believer.
10. Sacrifice of a willing believer.

#10 seems like a dicey prospect for Lawful clerics.

Douglas Loss adds a bit more with his article "The Land is My Land ...", including this bit about clerics and swords, including this from The Song of Roland ...

Turpin of Rheims, finding himself o’erset,
With four sharp lance-heads stuck fast within his breast,
Quickly leaps up, brave lord, and stands erect.
He looks on Roland and runs to him and says
Only one word: “I am not beaten yet!
True man never failed while life was in him left!”
He draws Almace, his steel-bright brand keen-edged;
A thousand strokes he strikes into the press.
Soon Charles shall see he spared no foe he met,
For all about him he’ll find four hundred men,
Some wounded, some clean through the body cleft,
And some of them made shorter by a head.
    — The Song of Roland, Laisse 155

So Turpin got to swing a sword, why doesn't your cleric? Well, to start off with, Turpin also doesn't get to cast spells or turn undead. Douglas thinks the rule should be thrown out, because its not "realistic" and because in AD&D the mace is as good as sword. I disagree - swords are more than just a damage range, but the "no sharp weapons" rule also takes many magic weapons out of a cleric's hands, thus helping the old fighter stay relevant.

Douglas Loss is back with "The Sense of Sacrifices", and this is a neat one about the chances of deities granting clerics spells they aren't high enough in level to cast. It all hinges on sacrifices of inanimate objects (valuable or symbolic, of course), animals and sentient creatures of a wildly different alignment than the cleric. To boil it down - 2% per 100 gp value of inanimate objects, symbol items 5%, animals 2% (or 3% if it is favored by the deity) and 5% for sentient beings. The chance shouldn't be higher than 50%, and each subsequent miracle should have a 5% penalty applied if the cleric tries this too often.

Sage Advice is cleric-centered as well. I enjoyed how this answer began:
Q: What happens when a Resurrection or a Raise Dead is cast on an undead?

A: Hmmm. It stands to reason ...
In other words - crap, we hadn't thought of that.

For lovers of the old school, the cleric stuff is followed by two articles concerning the new Basic D&D set. The first is written by J. Eric Holmes, author of the first edition, and the second by Tom Moldvay himself. Holmes has the longer article, and it explains the hows and whys of Basic D&D. Holmes fans have probably already read it, but if they haven't, I would highly suggest it.

For modern gamers, Paul Montgomery Crabaugh's "The Undercover Job Guide" can be useful ... especially if they're setting a game in 1981. Written for TOP SECRET, it covers a number of jobs and gives you some ideas on their access to travel and their salaries. Here are a couple of items:

Home Economics: travel potential moderate to high; starting salary $20,000/year (variable); almost no connection with what the field is normally thought of to include: agents in this field will very likely be chefs, or connected with the creation of fashion or decoration: female agents have a good chance of being models (salary quite variable).

Physical Education: travel potential high; starting salary quite variable; almost certainly an agent will be an athlete in this AOK: by preference, one in a sport played throughout much of the world. Tennis is an excellent choice; golf, soccer and track & field are also good.

Yeah, a pair of spies who work in a high school would be pretty fun.

This issue's Giants in the Earth by Katharine Brahtin Kerr covers Prospero (Lawful Good 14th level magic-user), his pals Ariel (a neutral "high-grade" air elemental - I would have gone sylph, mostly because Ariel is a sylph) and Caliban the chaotic evil half-orc, and Circe (chaotic neutral 18th level magic-user). Here's a nice bit ...

The best way to get the upper hand over Circe is to possess the strange herb known as moly. The god Hermes gave Ulysses some of this herb, said to grow only in Olympus. With it, Ulysses mastered Circe’s magic and made her turn his crew back into men from swine. If the DM wants moly available in the campaign, it should either be fantastically expensive or else a gift to a cleric from his or her god.

If a character wears moly, all of Circe’s polymorph spells will fail against that character, and the power of her other spells against that character will be weakened considerably; the character should get a +2 on all saving throws against her magic. Circe cannot touch this herb to steal it away, nor can her maidservants.

For more information on moly, click HERE.

We also learn Circe's spell list: 1st-charm person, comprehend languages, friends, read magic, sleep; 2nd-detect invisibility, ESP, forget, ray of enfeeblement, web; 3rd-fly, hold person, dispel magic, slow, suggestion; 4th-charm monster, confusion, fear, polymorph other, massmorph; 5th-animal growth, feeblemind, hold monster, passwall, transmute rock to mud; 6th-control weather, enchant an item, legend lore; 7th-charm plants, mass invisibility, vanish; 8th-mass charm, polymorph any object; 9th-imprisonment.

Dragon #52 also has a groovy little Gamma World adventure by Gary Jaquet called "Cavern of the Sub-Train". This might sound like a subway romp in the ruins of New York, but it's actually a romp through something more like Elon Musk's hyperloop. This network spanned the entire North American continent.

The adventure is left open-ended, so should come in handy to folks playing post-apoc games.

Victor Selby and Ed Greenwood introduce the Rhaumbusun in Dragon's Bestiary. Here's a quick B&T-style statblock:

Rhaumbusun, Small Monster: HD 1+2; AC 13; ATK 1 bite (1d3); MV 20'; SV 16; Int Low; AL Neutral (N); NA 1d2; XP/CL 100/2; Special-Gaze attack (40' range; paralyze for 3d4 turns)

Lewis Pulsipher has some interesting, peaceful gas-filled beasts called pelins. Not much for a fight, but they're semi-intelligent, so maybe they could be helpful in completing a quest if the players are smart enough to be nice to them and attempt communication.

Michael Kluever gives a nice history of siege warfare in "Knock, Knock!". Worth a read for people new to the subject.

Up next are three - count 'em three - takes on the bounty hunter class by Scott Bennie, Tom Armstrong, and Robert L Tussey and Kenneth Strunk. Lets judge them by the most relevant part of the class - the class titles!


The use of revenger, head hunter and manhunter are nice, but the inclusion of esquire by Armstrong wins the competition. Anything that can bring Bill & Ted into the conversation can only be good for a D&D game.

Hey - what the heck is this?


A Google search brings up a computer game designed for use with the Fantasy Trip. Pretty cool!

There are reviews of some cool miniatures from Ral Partha (hill giant, storm giant, cold drake), Heritage USA (hill giant and beholder and superheroes and supervillains), Castle Creations (condor and skull splitter giant), Penn-Hurst/Greenfield (a plastic castle), Citadel (ogre, giant spider) and Grenadier (the dragon's lair), as well as Basic Role-Playing, TIMELAG and Dungeon Tiles.

Not a bad issue - more advice-centric than number-y, but you get bounty hunters and a paralyzing lizard, so what the hey!

I leave you as always with Tramp ...


Remember - never trust gamers discovered in the wild!!!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Player Motivation

I was recently thinking about the people I've played games with over the years, and what motivated them. I think a big part of being a successful Game Master is figuring out what gives players a thrill and then trying to find ways to work those things into your game.

Understand, I'm not talking about winning here. Most (if not all) players enjoy winning. Everyone can't be a winner all the time. But consider war games, even such a venerable war game as chess. In a game of chess, one player wins and one player loses (unless there's a draw), and yet people keep coming back to the game. Winning really isn't everything.

The motivations I'm talking about are the situations that give people a charge while playing a game. Sitting behind my GM screen, I could see, as events unfolded, the way eyes would light up. Taking note, I tried, when it was possible, to present the situations people enjoyed in every session to give people a charge and leave them smiling at the end of the night, even when things didn't go quite as planned.

Oh, and when you run into a player for whom winning is everything, don't let them into your group. Nothing but heartache and headache will follow. Unless you actually are the parent of the player in question, it's not your job to teach them how to be a good loser. Maturity matters.

Here are the player types I remember:

1) Combat Junkie - loves rolling dice. Loves a good challenge, whether it's a big monster that has to be swarmed or a mass of minor monsters that have to be waded through, or some weird challenge they have to figure out. While it is true that players in the early version of the game often did their utmost to avoid combat and walk away with the treasure (more on that in a moment), many modern players come for the dice rolling, and put up with the exposition in between.

2) Ladder Climber - loves to level up, buy the better armor, build the stronghold, etc. They love success. This doesn't mean they throw a fit when they don't win, or their character loses a level or dies. That's part of the game. But they really love moving up the ladder, getting the new skills and abilities, and generally showing progress.

3) Make Believer - love to play a roll. Maybe they're wicked, maybe they're motherly or fatherly, maybe their something else, but they like the chance to interact with fictional characters and help write the game along with you.

4) Problem Solver - loves to figure things out. Sometimes these are min-maxers, who place all their focus on bending the game rules to their will. Those guys are a pain in the ass. The best ones are the ones who enjoy solving problems that are in-game - puzzles, riddles, strategy, tactics, mysteries. They love the mental challenge that does not involve dice rolling.

The tricky part about running a game, of course, is balancing these different interests. It is possible that not everybody will love every game all the time - in fact, this is likely. But throwing people a bone in the midst of an adventure that doesn't push their buttons is a good idea, and can make the game better for everyone else.

For example, we'll take the good old fashioned dungeon crawl. Dungeon crawls have been so successful over the years because they tend to make #1, #2 and #4 happy. Plenty of monsters, so plenty of opportunities for combat. Plenty of XP and treasure, so the ladder climber is happy. Problem solvers get traps, tricks, etc. to keep them interested. However, the make believer doesn't always get what they want in a dungeon crawl. What to do? Throw in the prisoner who was kidnapped by the monsters and needs help getting back to their home. Throw in the hesitant monster who wants to parlay (but can she be trusted). Give them some personalities with whom they can interact, and better yet - in whose life they can have an impact - and the rest of the dungeon crawling becomes more palatable.

Here are a couple ways to "throw players a bone" without breaking the game ...

Pointless Fights - You don't want to overdo this - and it's very easy to overdo - but once in a while throw the combat junkie a melee party. Throw a mass of minor monsters into the game who probably will not score a TPK, but who give the junkie a chance to roll some dice. Think of this as the opening scene of an action movie, where the hero and his or her prowess is introduced by them beating the crap out of a bunch of pointless mooks. It doesn't really forward the story, and since it's the first scene you know the hero is in no danger, but it's a bit of fun nonetheless. Again - don't do this too often, and if you're playing something other than an old school game where the combat can be played out with relative ease, think hard before you do it at all.

Story Arcs - A story arc that shows up as recurring characters or a situation that gradually gets dire and then gradually gets better by the players' actions can help keep the ladder climbers (who need more power to face the greater evil), make believers (who can make a fictional difference and interact with the recurring characters) and problem solvers (who must unravel the villain's master plan ... even if there isn't one*) happy, without too much extra work or time spent for the GM.

* Sometimes, the best master plan is actually created by the players. As they discuss what they think is happening, adopt their ideas, or roll randomly for who is right, and then from time to time throw in a curve ball. They think they're figuring it out, when in reality they're writing the script.

The players have some work to do as well. Much ink has been spilled over what the Game Master should do to keep players interested ... but what about the players? Think about it - the Game Master has probably invested far more time, energy and money into the game than the players, and they outnumber him or her by four or five or six to one ... but it's the GM's job to make the game successful? Doesn't sound right, and it isn't right.

What the players can do to help make a game a success is to recognize what their fellow players enjoy, and to indulge them their obsessions. In fact, try to get into those obsessions yourself. Player X likes role playing, Player Y likes rolling dice. Instead of rolling your eyes when the other player is getting what they like, try to find the fun in it yourself. Get outside the old comfort zone, fake it to make it, grow as a gamer - you never know what you're missing until you try.

Just a few thoughts on playing the game ... more crunchy stuff to come. The Monster book will be out tonight .It would be out already, but I can't use rpgnow at work ... I can't imagine why? Oh well - time to write about real estate - see you all later!
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