a while back (like weeks ago) Scrap Princess G+’d a series of MONSTER, MARVEL or MYSTERY posts. In the same spirit, and because I chanced across the remarkable David collection this morning:
The vizier of Walatuf concealed much behind his imposing beard.
of course I’m not out here on my own – you should check out my posse on the next page.
A Sepoy Revolt? What are you blathering about, Smithers?
No no no! Kill the dragon, catch Ho-oh, venerate the Simurgh! Is it really so complicated?
Did you see that? She totally just turned Hakim into a pillow! That’s going to complicate rescuing the Lilliputians and no mistake.
Sorry, we’re all out of Wands of Wonder. But we do have this Wand of Fabulous.
send you to
to find this guy
but when you get there it’s all
and there’s this guy
who gives you some
which turns everything
and then your ride home is all
unless you can figure out the
to reactivate the
get to the
Monte Cooke’s kickoff into Moebius-inspired Science Fantasy strikes just the right visual notes for me – even if the support text makes me crawn*: Humanity lives amid the remnants of eight great civilizations that have risen and fallen on Earth. NO! Instead: there is crazy inexplicable shit out there! Is anybody in charge at all!?! Go find out!
Which is kind of my way of saying I don’t know if I want to be in on the playtest phase of this or if I’d rather stay aloof, clutching my own distressingly similar setting, which will look derivative of this starting in about 2 minutes.
Damn you, Cooke!
Back to the proper subject of this blog: Dystopian Pokeverses. At last I can show you some suitably dystopian versions of old favourite Pokemon, courtesy of Gavin Mackey. That’s pretty much what I was thinking all along – thanks Gavin. More than these, which are also lovable but not miserable enough. And I’m really delighted by the sheer commitment in the fan movie Pokemon Apocalypse, but it’s not exactly where I was going either.
And while I’m doing a lazy linkdump post, do you know about Skylanders? That’s… not it either, but it’s kind of a place where my current aesthetic could go. I do like the mix of Cthulhiana, DnD cliches, Lego Adventures game design and Pokemon-type creature features. I call it Poke-Xena for a new generation. Which reminds me: apparently there are some Flash Gordon novels I should seek out, if my current Barsoom jones doesn’t abate soon.
Because I’ve been hiding under a rock for the past 25 years, DnD-wise, I had no idea that Githyanki had become a thing (I did have an idea about dark elves, because you can’t avoid them, but still, the name Drizzt meant nothing to me).
Anyway, shorn of the reams of lore they have no doubt accumulated, this is pretty much what I think about the astrally traveling jerks. And this beats anything else I have to say about them: They build their fortresses on the petrified bodies of dead gods. Like this here. Or here, which is also ridiculously cool. Or maybe there, for a change. See, if you keep mixing things up, eventually you can even put your dungeon underground and it looks cool all over again.
In case you’re currently under a rock, Geoffrey McKinney is publishing bare-bones old school modules with fanzine type production values. And Ian Johnson is doing the same for his wonderfully demented hell-crawl, The Bleaklands. The latter in particular is totally half-baked and fizzing with ideas.
My review of Eldritch Skies: don’t bother. I could say why in more detail, but fundamentally, what I wanted was balls-out Cthulhoid spacefaring where mead is your stardrive as well as your visual futurist, in about 32 pages of mind-altering illustrations. I didn’t want a wordy fantasy heartbreaker in 400 pages.
Finally, where are the hex sheet of yore? Here - print your own (thanks +Cole Long). Also crazy polar projection things and stuff.
The rest is pentagon tesselation.
EDIT: this here is a real life grease monkey.
This is what he made when his 2CV stopped working while he was driving across the desert.
…driving across the desert, in a 2CV. I’m guessing he’s Int 15+, but Wis 5-.
Edit again: this is a work in progress – as things come up, like Rey’s awesome technowiz character class, I will be modifying this template. If you have a grease monkey built to an old scheme you like better FEAR NOT you can still use them, but it might be an idea to grab the version of the rules you prefer…
Grease monkeys have no religion, no special faith in technology and no idea why they can put machines together and they work, where other people try and get garage art. They’re just handy with a spanner.
Fighting, saves and level XP are all like a Lab Lord thief. Maximum armour = chainmail. Any weapons are allowed.D4 HD, a spanner and a manic grin in place of a secretive smirk.
Instead of the usual raft of thief skills, grease monkeys get the following:
- Find/disarm/build/rearm traps
- Build insane McGyver contraptions of the player’s devising – this based on Rey’s technowiz (with my mods forthcoming)
- Ghost through the machine (hide and sneak at full speed in awkward, high-cover environments, like the guts of a giant machine (or a jungly swamp) for instance.
At 3rd level add Pick Locks.
At 5th level add Brachiate (swing through hanging vines/fuel lines/tentacles at double normal speed, only if unencumbered. Wait, what use is that? How often do your games involve hanging fuel lines anyway? I mean you could do it all the time if you had web-shooters like Spidey! Duh. Grease Monkey. Invent some)
But how good are they at all this? NEW MECHANIC (mechanic):
To fix a machine, identify what’s wrong, or make simple devices you essentially “hit it with your spanner.”
Tasks/machines/inventions have a difficulty rating, which works exactly like AC (Awkwardness Cwoshent? ‘Ardness to Calibrate? “Ang on a minute, if I just give it a quick Cick…”?).
The grease monkey achieves their task by overcoming its AC. THAC0 is 20 at first level, thereafter you add your level as a bonus to rolls. Which means they progress a bit faster than LL fighters hitting stuff with axes, and meteorically faster than LL thieves. And that just means you DMs get to set them monstrously difficult machine-building tasks and that’s that. Fighters work up to killing dragons, grease monkeys work up to fixing F22s. Thieves keep trying to break into chests and getting poisoned. Simple.
To make a brand new gizmo… is hard work. First, specify what you want it to do and agree with the DM “if this were a magic user spell, what level would it be?” In general to make a machine that replicates an MU spell, you should be at least high enough level to cast that spell, if you were an MU.
Then the DM will figure out the cost to build, exotic ingredients, fuel to make it work etc. Then you have a quest to do. Then there are rolls to see if it works and how much maintenance it needs every time you switch it on and what quirks it has and so on.
A grease monkey can invent one brand new device each level. Once they’ve invented it they can make more, but it costs materials, time and is naturally limited by how often experimental Frankenstein devices break (very often, requiring hours of repair. Almost as if they were Vancian spells, in fact).
Given the right parts, time and fuel, every grease monkey from level 1 can make a dangerous rattletrap motorbike/mad max deathwagon (AC 2), something to blast “ride of the Valkyries” out of it (AC 7), and a one shot, liable to blow your own head off type flamethrower (AC 5). The one-gizmo-per-level restriction is for stuff like “passwall” (AC 1) or “lightning bolt” (AC 4, requires 5th level) or “cure medium wounds” (AC 0 – really, how would you do that?) machines.
The LL thief XP table for convenience:
2nd level requires: 1,251XP
Per my house rules, to get above 8th level you have to “cheat” somehow – take on a demonic contract, become a lich – you set your own trouble and play through it with a willing DM. So everyone of “name” level has at least one dark secret.
+Trent B said: everyone should need the same xp to level up – fighters, mages, whatever.
And a light went on in my head. I’ve worried about balance – especially between PCs – pretty much my entire gaming life. But I’ve also long disliked stuff that gets in the way of troupe play – like having one character lag far behind the others on the leveling ladder, or character classes that might have a useful schtick but nobody wants to play them because they have some other feature that turns everybody off.
And then I read Jeff‘s and Scrap Princess‘s and Arcadian‘s character generation documents and I realised something: they made characters I wanted to play, with absolutely no regard for their mechanically effectiveness. I discovered that I only worried about balance when I felt like my character wasn’t awesome enough to make me smile even if – maybe especially if – it was kind of inept. I’m talking about gems like No Signal!’s Doxy (sexy green alien dancer) and Luchador classes – one’s crazy overpowered with limited teleport baked right in, the other’s a kind of cut-price paladin with the monk’s restrictions on effectiveness at low level. Both are funny, inspiring and will operate at an intriguingly oblique angle to the dungeon. I’d choose either in a heartbeat over some boring old cleric.
Actually, that’s how I want to learn about your setting – not from pages and pages of lore or even necessarily from rules and table contents, but from the characters I can play in it. Because if I want to play your characters then I want to play in your game, and we’ll figure out the plot and challenges at the table.
So here’s a stupid idea: exploded classes, no regard for balance, hot rod style. Everyone’s an ordinary fighting man, except for what happens on the following tables. Roll once on each table, or as many times as you like, and go with whatever you get. Or cheat and use adjacent results or swap the percentiles around if you think you can have more fun with something else. Reroll obvious conflicts (eg sneaky and not-sneaky) or invent some clever way they could work together. Maybe, just maybe, then you get the option to arrange your attributes to fit rather than 3d6 in order.
No, it doesn’t make iconic archetypes, and for any specific setting (in my case Carcosoid Turkestan or Spice Island Poke-Pirates) you’d want to lean on evocative cultural references, but this is my vanilla DnD pre-first-draft:
01-05: no metal armour or weapons (it chafes! It smells! I’m allergic!)
06-10: only metal armour/weapons (my clan spits on your leather, bows and spears)
——— I don’t need no steenkeeng armour because:
11-15: naturally armored, or amazing dodge – anyway, hard to hit – base AC 6
16-20: I’m not made of meat! (ie robot, golem, brass jackalman, lucked out with the mi-go braincase): either AC 3 or mad damage reduction as appropriate. But you clank: no sneaking.
21-25: it gets in the way of mah sexay (AC 10 but enemies vulnerable to your sexay fight you at -2 attack and defense)
26-30: it would stop me stretching all around like a some crazy putty demon (half damage from blunt weapons, stretchy squeezy feats like reaching very high shelves or slipping between bars)
———-end no steenkeeng armour section————-
31-35: ambidextrous! May get one attack for each hand (how many arms you got?) but every attack after the first is at cumulative -3
36-40: sword saint (or whatever: make up an awesome style name): +2 with preferred weapon
41-45: only improvised weapons or bare hands – damage depends on what you can find, hands is d4
46-50: may not draw blood. At all, so no smashing weapons neither. Burning’s OK, though
51-55: dirty fighter: may reduce your own AC by 2 to try a sneaky trick – it if hits, automatic crit
56-60: Summer Glau type berserk: you keep total, icy control but you can’t talk or work in a team during your fugue. +3 to hit/damage, but cannot retreat once in berserker state
61-70: You Are All My Children! You will not fight some common monster type (choose goblins or undead or whatever) for some reason
71-75: Just a sec, let me do my war-dance! At -2 to all fighting unless you’ve done your specific pre-fight ritual
76-80: physics-defying preternatural throwing ability: chuck anything up to 5lbs x your strength, up to 3 feet x strength, damage by DM fiat
81-85: danger sense: you don’t know what the danger is (trap, monster, betrayal, whatever) but you know it’s imminent. Unless it has some kind of awesome sneaky ability in which case it gets a saving throw to strike without warning
81-85: concealed/natural weapons. Claws are all very well, but what about constrictor legs? D6 damage
86-90: venomous bite/scratch/hair swipe/rasp: immediate -2 to all the victim’s rolls, victim emits a smell you can track them by later
91-95: unhealing – you need to be repaired by a smith/woodworker/farrier/whatever, using spare parts
96-00: run like a maniac: -2 to hit you with projectile weapons, cross dramatically important distances in 1 round
01-04: Cast cleric spells like the class
05-08: cast MU spells like the class
09-12: cast illusionist spells like the class
13-16: cast druid spells like the class
17-20: cast random spells off any list, like a Vancian MU but you have no idea what’s coming each day; your demonic helper/passenger doesn’t tell you
21-24: cast spells from some other game altogether – Ars Magica, Nephilim, CoC: talk with the DM
22-28: Sneaky like the night – get a decent chance to hide and sneak and so on, right from 1st level.
29-32: Toblerone/boisterous brawler – you can’t sneak or talk below a shout but once a day you get the power of suggestion, to bully or browbeat or inspire someone to do what you tell them
33-36: blind albino cave-dweller: there’s no infravision here, but you can “see” in the dark through echolocation, smell, whatever – and torches don’t cancel it. Alas, you’re weak above ground (-4 to surprise etc outside your nice, echoey hole in the ground)
37-40: Sherlock Holmes attentiveness – you get Trail of Cthulhu-like clue-finding and trap detection Figuring out what to do about it all is still your problem
41-44: animal whisperer: can calm, tame and talk with animals – or vegetables or minerals if you like, and you get +2 on the reaction roll
45-48: built-in GPS: gives you absolute position sense and a big bonus to mapping, but beware those GPS-leggers
49-52: scholarly knowledge OR barbarian insight: prod the DM for extra clues when things get slow
53-56: astral projection (takes an hour to set up, you can wander as far as you like, spying on the material plane, but face astral hazards), once per day
57-60: possess someone else, once per day. Your own body falls limp to the ground, or trails around after the rest of the gang like a zombie, or maybe the possessee gets ejected into it! Invent your own saving throws and psychic combat and whatnot mechanics or steal them from Nephilim or the Magic Jar spell
61-64: One spell effect as a fixed natural ability, once per day (randomly select from all lists up to level 3)
65-68: useful devices: either you McGyver them out of the environment or you have a cartoony pouch/cyberwear. 1d4 damage when used as weapons
69-72: change appearance, gender, status or other ascriptive characteristic once per day (good for spies! Inconveniently you can’t change right back!)
73-76: Wuxia style cloud- jumping or glide like a flying squirrel (your choice)
77-80: acrobatics and climbing. You only have to roll for any circus-type feat when it makes for more fun
81-84: wild sorcery! You get one random spell a day and you must use/express/vent it
85-88: psionics, per Zak’s simple, brilliant system*
89-92: cracksman – good with any manual dexterity task – lock pick, lift wallets, forge documents, mend clocks
93-96: medic – heal others’ injuries. Is it magic? Is it ultratech? Dunno, but roll a D30: you can restore that percentage of their hit points/heal one severe injury, 5 times until you have to go somewhere secret to get fresh supplies/charged up again
97-00: inspire others (with your goodness or intimidating scowl or sexy wiles or whatever) – improve morale, other paladin-like effects: +20% HP to everyone around you, while you’re around
01-05: environment-type specialist: eg woodsman, miner/spelunker, architect, sailor, mountaineer, desert-dweller – you know the secrets of this place and how to survive here like a ranger or druid or dwarf or whatever. Not very flavourful? Get creative! What, you want a big jobs list here?
06-10: mandatory poverty – must give away all treasure you can’t justify to your mother superior/directly use yourself
11-15: mandatory ostentation – must wear all your wealth on your body, or sell it for jewelry
16-20: iron stomach – immune to ingested poisons, but also most potions
21-25: strong smell – delicious to some monsters, terrifying to others: reaction rolls always go extreme
26-30: secret – you know something important about the game world but can’t talk about it
31-35: must obey some entity and act according to its precepts (law, a god, your mum, a guild, another PC…)
36-40: must work to annoy/hamper/discredit some entity, as above
41-45: soulless automaton – immune to any kind of mind or spirit magic, charm etc, but also to cheering effects
46-50: spiritual entity – immune to elemental magical damage and impersonal accidents, but not immune to the intent to harm expressed in an axe swing or bow shot or poison dart trap
51-55: visitor from another dimension: weirdly affected by some common thing in our world, like strawberries make you shrink or you can pull duplicates of yourself out of mirrors (but they’ll turn against you after d6 minutes)… goatee and angry eyebrows optional.
56-60: terrifying/unhinging appearance/nature – must stay hidden/disguised somehow (like you’re a shoggoth or walking corpse or something) or unfortunate, taboo-breaking appearance (like you have sex organs where your mouth should be or look exactly like the devil). Veil around friends, or reveal your shocking truth to get automatic surprise
61-65: communicate with anything once per day – like Vulcan mind-meld but you can use it to get psychic vibes off dirt floors or pools of water, as well.
66-70: involuntary mirroring – you look to others exactly like the last thing you killed. Unless they make a save, maybe.
71-75: nine lives: if reduced to negative HP you get stunned for that many hours but then you wake up again on 1HP, unless someone deliberately makes sure you’re dead or you fall in acid or something. Only works 8 times (inspired by Leps the Indestructible, in Thomas Funderburk’s brilliantly entertaining The Fighters – the men and machines of the first air war)
76-80: Wait, I know this guy who… one useful contact, once per session. You tell me how he’ll help
81-85: repulsive/overbearing/awesome to some class of monster (acts like turn undead but you specify the brood – goblins, beastmen, ghosts, whatever, and maybe you can charm them or freeze them or something else)
86-90: were-whatever (shapeshift only to that thing, according to whatever crazy rules you make up. Only no wolves, bears or eagles: wereshoggoth is encouraged, weremeerkat doubly so)
91-95: it just so happens… you can keep this side of your character in reserve until that exact moment you need it. But once you make something up, the slot is gone
96-00: sidekick – an unfailingly loyal companion, played by someone else at the table in addition to whatever else they’re doing**
* So I asked Zak for a non-sucky psionics system that also wasn’t just another magic system, and he said:
1. Once per day, period.
2. If you want to be a psionic PC you are distracted and fucked up, -1 to con and dex.
3. You must concentrate for 3 rounds in combat or 20 seconds. No physical interruptions allowed but you can hear noises or be in the presence of combat.
4. After the 3 rounds you can “hold” the release of the power up to 2 rounds if you like.
5. Psi power is based on traumas and horrors your PCs has witnessed. To wit: the power consists of the PC being able to manifest the effect of any natural power of a living being (or undead or whatever demons are) s/he has seen used to date. The effect of a ghoul’s paralysis, a medusa’s stare, a sorcerer’s intelligence, an ogre’s strength, a hydra’s regeneration etc.
6. If the ability in question can normally affect another creature it can be projected up to levelx5 feet. So like if your PC had seen a giant, the PC could telekinese with the giant’s strength up to 5 feet at 1st level and at 200 feet at 20th level.
6. Spells do not count as powers, but the spell-like abilities of demons and devils do.
7. Feedback: after manifesting the power, the PC must make a wisdom check (roll-under-wisdom-minus-the -monster-level-of-the-creature-being-mentally-evoked) or will save (at a DC of 10+monster CR) depending on system
8. A failed feedback save/check causes hp damage equal to the level of the creature evoked. A botched feedback save causes that much damage to everyone in a creature-level x 10′ radius including the psion.
9. If the psion is ever knocked unconscious by feedback (alone), this is a traumatic experience that will cause him/her to gain one minor insanity.
10. At the GM’s discretion this may also extend to natural phenomena such as lightning discharges, etc. If there are described dreams in the game, any supernatural ability observed in the dream may be used. If the effective level of the phenomenon is unclear, roll 2d4
11. Instead of the normal botch rules you can use the Dark Heresy weird phenomena psychic phenomena chart which is pretty cool.
** if you roll a crappy character then that can be the sidekick – create a second character with the pre-determined attribute “sidekick.” If a sidekick loses their main character (the side they kick off?) then they can charm one (only one) other character in the game world into becoming their new main character. That character gets a DM fiat save, in case the DM doesn’t want Lolth or the Vampire Lord of Gibbons to join the party right now.
Phew. Going to lie down now.
First, this is a mighty handy resource: a list of not a few OSR AD&D (1e) modules you can get for free or close to it. Imagine you picked up the reprints of the original AD&D rulebooks that WoTC will be distributing in April, and you say to yourself, “well, what do I do with this crazy game?” Here. Also entries and winners of the One Page Dungeon Contest, here.
Relief maps sound pretty boring, until you realise that they’re those models of cities under siege that Louis XIV, Napoleon, Peter the Great etc. were always striding around on, moving their troops about, like this. Photos on the official site aren’t great – these are better and more navigable – but the site does have a bunch of 3D digitizations of excerpts from the models, made in partnership with Google Earth, and navigable by google map.
The relief maps are interesting for a bunch of reasons – first, they’re documents of the state of cities and their surroundings at the time the models were made – and some of them date back to the 16th century. There are very, very few records of urban fabric out there for periods before the 19th century, so that makes them important historically. Second, they show how good military surveying was at different periods, and how carefully French kings prepared for war, building models of their own cities against the day they would have to defend or retake them, documenting farmhouses and watercourses and walls between fields, all relevant for hiding the movement of troops or placing guns to cover battlefields – making them relevant to recent discussions of war and its rat-bastard, planning-related attractions. They’re also just plain incredible – obsessively detailed, beautifully finished, intricately jointed together.
Finally, they show ideas of good and bad fortification, and what rulers were willing to do in the name of defensibility – there’s a great story about how Louis XIV’s chief military engineer, Vauban, was flabbergasted by how bad the defenses of Embrun were. He threw his hands up and said he could do nothing with them. So Louis gave him permission to build a new fortified town, closer to the enemy (Savoy in this case), wherever he thought made the best military sense. The result was Mont-Dauphin – an exemplary cannon fort, straddling the river, with superb sight-lines and command of the territory and all that. Sadly, though, while Vauban was a military genius, he was no urban planner. Mont-Dauphin made no sense as a town, nobody wanted to go there, and 30 years later they still hadn’t got around to putting up the modest set of buildings inside those exemplary walls which Vauban had placed in his model.
So what use is all this to the harassed DM? Well, models and sympathetic magic are old dungeons standbys, but as a form of non-magical scrying these also suggest all kinds of espionage plots to me – agents could break into the model library and steal or mess with the contents, feeding the enemy false information with forged model components – or they could mess with the landscape itself if there are means to do so, screwing up the advance of the Great Automata Legion by deviating the river right into their obvious attack path or blocking off that all-important street that’s perfect for cannonfire or cavalry charges. Or they could discover plans there – for ready-made forts or flying islands, even, which would make or break a strategic advance. Does Ming the Merciless reduce his subjects to miniature scale – as punishment or to collect trophies of great conquests? Could you steal such a miniaturized town and restore it to full size – on its original location or somewhere more or less convenient? In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Strange moves chunks of the Spanish countryside around to baffle the enemy and screw up their logistics – maybe the model-map room allows a similar power, letting the Supreme Overlord lego his domains together in whatever configuration suits his schemes of the hour.
Unrelated oldie but goodie: how to get to Ninan M’nath. Love it.
So Eric Minton of The Mule Abides has been wondering what to do with players who slaughter their hirelings once the horses are loaded, and Cyclopeatron’s been worrying about how the sleep spell turns his players into sadists and murderers. In short, why do players act like psychopaths, and what should you do about it?
The comments show the obvious poles – do nothing, that’s the game on one side and punish them mechanically on the other, and a larger punishing camp who want the pain to be felt in the idiom of the game-world. Although so far the extent of that re hirelings seems to be have the free market sort it out (make reputation count, have hirelings sign on with other groups who sometimes bring a few back alive, reduce the quality/usefulness of the hirelings who stay with the group). The most popular solution seems to be to reduce the mechanical motivations for hireling slaughter (by decoupling xp from hireling wages) and to make sleep less useful.
I think the root of the problem lies elsewhere. St. Yossarian’s comment on Cyclopeatron avers:
your actions should always be defined in context, with the social mores of the world, region, and dungeon in which your gameplay is taking place
and then proposes a bunch of ways in which the world might act back against PC-perpetrated outrages against those mores:
Do the goblins refuse to surrender, knowing there’s a party of people around murdering defenseless goblins in their sleep? …Do the goblins raise a huge party and slaughter the children of Pleasantshire in retribution for the slaughter inflicted on their hunting party?
That’s fine, if there’s a world out there with mores to act back, and if the players have some mental model of that world that expects consequences. But very often those worlds are woefully thin backdrops to the real action, which happens in a purpose-built, limited-consequences, racialized funhouse heterotopia, made specifically to support pyschopathic behaviors – what happens in the Tomb of Horrors stays in the Tomb of Horrors. In particular, very often PCs have no social role to play at all outside the dungeon. They are defined functionally, by the means they use to extract cash from monsters: fighting, stealing, fighting with magic or fighting/turning/healing. They may possibly belong to guilds. They may possibly get hit up for taxes and tolls. They may be given jobs to do by the local lord. But none of this gives them any more traction in the world than the Man With No Name or High Plains Drifter. They don’t expect to find romance or support dependents or receive gratitude from the populace even enjoy their famous carousing (which tends to wind up in fights. Ahem).
And that’s pretty much a definition of pyschopathy or sociopathy: the PCs don’t engage with the world or other people like they matter because they can’t see them mattering: it’s a problem of suspension of disbelief. The DM who is disturbed by torture or summary execution is probably working with Kantian ideas – bad acts are bad in themselves – modified by racial categories – killing goblins isn’t bad – which they take for granted because it’s their world. They know where they’ve drawn the lines between the people who matter and the ones who don’t. But the players are in a landscape that consists only of threats. Villages are cute scenery because they are low-threat areas, but they have little to do with the reward system of the game.
I propose a different, not very OS solution: get the players to define their social role and history. They aren’t fresh out of the character mills. They have mothers and maybe kids. And they aren’t PCs, nor even “adventurers:” nobody considered themselves an “adventurer” until the 19th century had made the East safe and pliable enough to support such a conceit. Are they bandits, pest control, defenders of the faith, knights errant or what? Mike Monaco reckons “pirates” is a good description for his players, and I think that’s probably true of most groups conceptually but it’s already a big step up socially from where most groups are today, because many pirates drew up constitutions to maintain peace and order among themselves, because they knew their categories between hunter and prey weren’t all that reliable and they planned, many of them, to retire some day and actually spend that loot.
Maybe more desirable than “pirate” (or bandit/gangsta/warlord) is “privateer.” History is not authoritative, but it does come up with good ideas, even for handling dungeoneering groups, hireling fees and murderous employers. A sailor on a Dutch privateer in 1600 could expect 2 months’ advance, one share of all loot (compared with the captain who could get 4-8 shares) and compensation in the event of being disabled or killed, paid to a named beneficiary. They also organized their own insurance cooperatives, to bail them out if they got ransomed by slavers. All this was handled by independent agents so everyone knew it was equitable. If you signed on you got a license to kill, pillage and spend, as long as you only did it to enemy forces. You weren’t generally required to keep prisoners alive but you could face legal consequences for abusing your own people, and those prisoners might be worth money or influence back in town. And you got benefits, both on the job and back home: privateering was a respectable business. It could even be heroically patriotic. It could lead to riches, good marriages and political power – a direct stake in the business and government of the city, region and state. And you could keep sailing and adventuring while you did it. Don’t fancy becoming a burgher with a little garden and a Calvinist governess for the kids? Malay and Bugis captains around the same period had similar career paths and social status while evoking more of a piratical or Beowulf vibe. Think it all sounds too modern? Warrior cultures the world over, from the Masai to Beowulf’s Geats to pre-Islamic Bedouin tied their fighting men to the communal hearth: you brought riches back from the unknown and you made them valuable by exchanging them back home for reputation. Through your mighty deeds you fed and protected the village, under your watch no poor child went hungry, and the men who went out with you did so to share in your success, not because you paid them a pittance like the semi-slaves of early modern merchant shipping, but because you were showing what heroism was.
Just imagine that.
I aim to pay my Joesky tax in the next post with a bunch of real-world solutions to the hireling hiring problem, and extra-disgusting ways in which people could get forced into dangerous, dirty jobs, all courtesy of the Dutch East India Company.
In the Friday mosque at Firuzabad they tell of a bold, ingenious and prolific thief, who would set himself up in front of another merchant’s stall in the market and sell their goods, magicked up for him by an enchanted shop-front he plastered over his victim’s. The wares he sold would crumble to dust or melt into smoke hours after their purchase – when the gulled buyers returned to confront the thief he would inevitably be gone or, so wilder rumours claim, might be seen folding his trick shop-front up into a little wooden case, before running off into the tangled crowd. Those repeatedly tricked added details to the story: the shop-front was only paper thin but it looked just like the closed shop it covered over – some claimed they had even been allowed into back rooms for tea, or to examine rare and valuable items. It could be recognised by the dove that always cooed from a cage at the front. And the wares always closely resembled those of the real, closed shops that the thief had obscured, so that many distinguished old hajjis have been banned from the market for fighting with shopkeepers that they insist have swindled them. Stories from other cities and markets differ in small details: one centres on the thief’s distinctive turban, another on his parrot, a third on the curious lightness of the bogus goods. Some storytellers purport to be the thief’s erstwhile friends – they say the thief was himself a respectable, upstanding man but that after he acquired the shop-front his mind turned to greed and trickery. In Firuzabad the thief has now not been heard of in a month. There is a rumour that the vizier has him imprisoned, and has confiscated his remarkable kiosk.
There is a wyrm native to the coastal kingdom of Ghanaligh, hundreds of feet long but the thickness of a stout rope, which can control the colours of its iridescent, shimmering scales to make any pattern or image. Its body is somewhat deformable and prone to elaborate coiling: it loves to lie pancake-flat on oriental rugs or hang from rods masquerading as a tapestry. It has no claws and only weak fangs, laced with a poison that provokes sleep or ravenous hunger. It is chiefly prized for its breath weapon, however, a cloud of illusion-inducing smoke, covering a 30′ cube. The illusions are controlled by the dragon’s will but filtered through the victim’s interpretation: they are considered prophetic by the longtail adepts of the far west. They always begin with the removal of all threats and a sensation of peace (the dragon, if spotted, might be shown escaping or melting into air or otherwise being neutralized), and continue as long as the dragon remains nearby. Anyone affected will have their morale raised and concentration lowered by 1d4 for 30-CON hours and may be subject to shreds or suggestions of illusion for years afterward.
Away from Ghanaligh the dragon’s scales become dull and lose their colour-changing ability. Those of the maghreb are said to be red or black, and notably resinous.
No. Enc.: 1-4
Alignment: you decide. OR Chaotic Good
Movement: lethargic unless frightened. Then 50′ a round. Cannot jump
Armor Class:3. It’s hard to see and dodges well, but it’s also a great big rope
Hit Dice: 5
Attacks: bite (1d3 plus save vs. poison: 1-3 sleep: 4-6 hunger compulsion)
XP: 20. What are you doing attacking this harmless, peaceful creature? And no, its effects do not remind me of anything else. It’s about the wonder of childhood. Honestly!
Inspired, like others, by Zak’s battle of the styrofoam cup bridge, and in only slightly ironic response to Tao of D&D’s plea for a non-system-dependent mass battle system (it’s a system without a system! It needs to be a fun game AND not shortchange the players’ expectations of my own idiosyncratic system AND plug into all rule systems!), I hereby proffer the following one-size-fits-all solution for fantasy battles:
Cheat. Watch your players. Make sure everyone’s having fun. Know how long you want it to run before you begin. Roll some dice behind your shield from time to time and nobody will ever guess.
1. Describe the whole battle situation as it forms up, when units are getting into place and the players are trying to figure out their strategy. Get the players to say how they’re arranging forces. Think at that moment how hard a time they should have in fighting, depending on how smart they’ve been.
2. Then you’re in combat. All hell breaks loose and everyone’s too busy with their own troll to think much about how the breach as a whole is doing. So you watch how the players are doing, and their units do pretty much as well as they do. If they dispatch their trolls fast enough that they’re looking to help out other people, give them more trolls. That means they’re beating the enemy at their bit of the line. If they’re struggling, so is their unit.
3. Gauge the mood of the room at half time. Everyone engaged? If not, why not? Get the players to take a look up: now is when the enemy pulls out their surprise, or when successful units get to go help others or when failing units have to decide how they’re going to avoid dying. If they’re doing great, offer them a chance to blast through the trolls in a crazy charge. React to their moves.
4. Back to melee. characters should be either triumphing or dropping, and that’s how your battle works out. If it’s looking like a stalemate decide now: either have night fall and the enemy melts into the woods, or tell the players disaster threatens unless they do something clever (sappers have got under the walls, gate’s going to break, Ghost Troll Chief is rolling up from the valley). Any half decent cleverness saves them, but blank looks had better be followed by running.
5. Do not end the session in battle. If the enemy melted away then the session ends with them still out there. Players must do something clever next session or be ambushed/sapped/have a poisoned well/whatever else your sneaky trolls could manage that would spring the players out of their current standoff. New battle should be obviously different from previous one: fought on the run, flying enemies, war engines… or if you’re feeling kind, reinforcements who have been surprised and are now fighting the trolls themselves. You have to go rescue them, attack the trolls in the rear.
That’s it. Finished early? Good: you can spend that time dealing with the aftermath and mop up, rescuing plot hook prisoners and discovering mysterious Dwarf gold clockwerks in the Troll King’s necklace, or figuring out where you’re going to run to and hole up, since you’re already 40 miles deep in the Trollridge Mountains.