Archive for May, 2011

Randall Munroe fires a shot across the OSR’s bow

May 29, 2011 1 comment

xkcd on emergent story.

I had “inadvertently” at first, but then I read the hover text. Of course he knows what he’s doing.

Now I have to process this piece of information: D&D makes stories and news the same way sports and financial analysis do. What does that tell us?

Lost in the bilges

May 23, 2011 3 comments

I have 25 writing days left to finish the first draft of my dissertation, so you won’t be hearing much from me in the next couple of months.

That said, when it’s done I plan to write a bit about it here, since it involves 17th and 18th century merchant and war ships. I’m planning on drawing up some deck plans (hexed or squared), maybe plans of shipyards, colonial repair facilities etc, all for enriching the Sea of O’sr, for which I also have an island or two. So if you’re not totally sick of pirates and saltboxes by the end of summer, there be tools a-comin. And one day I’ll get around to those medieval travel and trade figures, culled from Goitein’s study of the Cairo geniza documents.

In the meantime I’ll leave you with this completely unbaked thought: I see OSR bloggers who want to do away with the thief (anyone can steal!) and the cleric (it’s just a walking healing potion!). Don’t get ’em started on druids, monks, or god help me, bards. Why, they ask, shouldn’t the fighting man climb walls, hug trees, hit people with crucifices, sing and/or meditate? Or, for that matter, why not dex-based fighters – swashbucklers – which are like assassins but not.

I have a counter proposal.

Ditch the fighter. Or, rather, now everyone can fight like a fighter, in addition to that other thing they do. In plate mail, unless there’s a good mechanical reason not to. Because you’d be stupid to go into the mythic underworld with nothing but a hastily-doodled spell book and a butterknife to keep you warm.

Why? Because half the rules in the game are about propping up fighters. Every other class is defined in comparison/competition with the fighter. Ditch the fighter and those arbitrary armour restrictions and you can really start asking useful questions about the relative merits of all those specialist skills that kept invading the game. Ask yourself, how much do you miss the sub-Galdalfian berobed wizard with the embarrassing moon-and-stars print KKK hat, now that you can have him striking purple sparks with his broadsword, Elric-style? Sure, the cleric will need work, since he was a cut-rate fighter anyway. Bounce him up a level in powers from the get-go. Merge the ranger and druid. Whatever. Just try a game where everyone’s a fighter, given that you already play a game where everyone fights.

Back to ships: if you’re in London check out Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story; if you’re in Antwerp check out the new MAS center, which restores a maritime museum to the city that held Holland’s fortune before Amsterdam; if you’re in Amsterdam come see me talk about the lack of maritime radicalism in the Dutch East India Company, only don’t bother trying to get into the Amsterdam Maritime Museum because it’s been shut for the last several years… and don’t hold your breath for a reopening in September, neither. Instead, take the train over to otherwise-desolate Lelystad to see the replica 17th century East Indiaman Batavia they have there, and to crawl all over the half-built skeleton of the Zeven Provincieen.

Sorry, no Joesky. Just recommendations both for Tim Powers’ original On Stranger Tides and for George Macdonald Fraser’s The Pyrates, which is the funny campy Hollywoody book you wanted before Depp/Sparrow recast the hapless pirate in his own image, which still gives him a run for his money when he’s at his best, and which is gloriously free of Verbinskian bloat.

And consider, now you no longer have the fighter, the pirates in your game don’t have to choose between being fighters or thieves.

Belated Joesky: the haunted swamp

May 18, 2011 Leave a comment

With apologies to Land of Nod, Tim Powers, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, all of whom I am ripping off unmercifully:

We’re talkin’ about the whole man
When he’s whole we see him smile
But take just one part away from the rest
And he’s a a crocodile.

The trouble with magic is, we really don’t know what it’s for. Oh, certainly, its effects are useful: those everlasting lights, the firebolts, the purses that can hold a horse or a house or a dragon’s horde of treasure. But why were these things made? Was it for the effects we know? Then why are there so many spells that merely unmake things? That send, for instance, gold or food or water or dead bodies away? Or that subtly change their weight or colour or nature? Take that spell that turns men into animals, for instance. Why do they never turn back? Why does one man turn into a ram and another into a jackal?

That one, at least, we know some little thing about. Because of that village in Sweetmarsh where they found the scroll and before anyone knew, every last soul had been turned into some creature or other, except four little children locked in the root cellar. It seems that spell sheers off some vital piece of the soul, the one that makes us human. Perhaps one of the five essences from which we are all made. And what’s left is an animal. An enraged, confused, miserable animal. And the piece, shorn away, goes drifting about the swamp, possessing the weak, scaring the tired and unwary with visions, and maybe just maybe attaching itself onto the animals of the swamp, to make those abominations we hear about, from time to time, lurching out of the marsh, frightening the village’s new inhabitants out of their houses.

On levels as a philosophical category; or, esse quam videri

May 17, 2011 3 comments

Jovial Priest asks an extremely interesting question regarding his Universal Survival Guide project: Should character level lead to an increase in ability? with the addendum Are we creating rules for heroic fantasy or rules for the simulation of a world that obeys Earth laws? Robert Fisher responds;  The “realistic” part is there to make the players feel more comfortable and to make the fantastic parts feel more fantastic. It also helps them to have a framework to judge their character’s chances. The fantastic elements are there to make the players feel (among other things) uncomfortable and to be interesting.  Yup. That’s eminently practical and makes sense and anyway, how else would you run a game? Players gotta have a comprehensible, stable world in order to take meaningful action, make plans, take reasonable decisions, participate. Fine.

But where is “realistic?” What will your players will feel to be natural or appropriate? Which camels are they happy to swallow, and which gnats will strangle them?

Here’s the thing: levels are simply non-naturalistic and their presence in D&D is a huge part of the anti-naturalism of the game’s implied setting. This game takes your character from almost-hopeless shlub to as far up the god ladder as you want to go, and that is your character’s arc. But it’s still not simple heroicism. Because levels represent a very particular take on what makes a hero: one that’s these days quite unpopular among screenwriters.

Levels model experience, not talent. That’s important, because it explains competence in a particular way, which works for certain kinds of characters – like Chow Yun-Fat in Crouching Tiger or Yoda in Star Wars or Higgs in Girl Genius. These characters have been around a long time, they’ve learned the tricks, they’ve earned their levels. Their amazing actions come with an explanation – diligent hard work, discipline, heartfelt application. All very midwestern virtues. Levels don’t explain other characters (often the actual protagonists) in those same works, though, like young whippersnapper Zhang Ziyi or Luke or Agatha. For them you probably need GURPS’ “starting points” system. So in one way they seem “naturalistic,” rather than mythic, and people like or dislike them on that basis.

Except increasing HP or saving throws with level doesn’t really model increasing skill. The old OSR argument that “PCs become heroes through play” is really a kind of selection or confirmation bias; they’re heroes because they’re still here. They have high hit points because they’ve demonstrated they’re hard to kill. In other words, they’re mechanically mythic. What about the other not-obviously-learned benefits of leveling up, though? Why can higher-level MUs and clerics cast more powerful spells? There are 3 game design reasons – because novice players should have simple toys to master first; because usually the bigger hazards are not right next to the First Level Graduation Canteen, and that’s probably because sequels gotta get bigger; and because players love finding cheese. But is there an in-game reason? Sure, you can rationalise one: this spell is harder than that, or only given out by the Spell Angels to initiates of a certain standing, but look at the mechanics, especially of what MUs can learn/remember. They’re very mechanical. Your brain won’t absorb spell x until you’re level y.

Which brings me to the thing my inner munchkin loves and my inner book-reading, vicariously-thrilled child hates about levels. They tell you exactly how powerful you are. They offer a predictable, orderly progression of powers, like freemasonry or scientology or belt systems for martial arts. So they act as a ready explanation for anything extraordinary the characters might do – the characters aren’t really amazing or freakish, just high level. In a perverse way levels glue the gameworld together: they diagnose and contextualize their heroes, by giving the heroic condition a name and number. At the same time they make heroism mundane, obvious. Did you kill the dragon? Really? Oh, but it had 8 HD and you had 9. OK. 

And they offer a kind of reassurance that non-interactive fiction, and quite a lot of RPGs, BTW, don’t depend on. Of perfect self-knowledge – of the impossibility of ever really being fooled. It’s the same neurotic reassurance that demands Charm Person be a trick, not a real friend-making spell. Because you shouldn’t be able to affect people deep down in their hearts, and that means you should know what’s down there, on the player/character layer. Levels reveal the character’s essence, their potential, who they really are, in a way that’s not just intelligible, but ironclad, unalterable, unmaskable truth. And they tell you what you can expect in the next n adventures. So they take away surprises – both the kind that destroy play and the kind that players might really enjoy. You can’t have that moment of divine realization, that puts you ahead of the villains at last, because the game is set up to dribble out power in known increments. The most you can hope for is to get your hands on some kryptonite. And you can’t learn that you were secretly someone else with different prospects because the character sheet does not lie to you. You might secretly be the lost prince of Captchaword but it won’t make a mechanical difference. Not because the DM’s hands are tied, as such, but because the structure of leveling would make all such moves look like “cheating:” betrayals of the expectations built into the system.

Don’t get me wrong, I see that levels provide a stability that’s useful in a game, for all the reasons Robert Fisher said. I see that they help players gauge threats and plan and understand what kind of game they’re playing. But right there in that knowability, that predictability, they do a pretty good job of destroying heroism.

Because of course you’re not going to take that dragon on, idiot. You’re third level!

A maze of twisty passageways IRL

May 16, 2011 1 comment

So I’m in France for the foreseeable future.*

Which means that just occasionally I get to look at some D&D inspirational material up close. The latest escapade was the tunnels beneath the medieval town of Provins. Chloe has the tour guide thing down and some pix, here. There’s about 10km of tunnels under the town, which is less than you find under Riems, but still, nothing to be sniffed at, in 8 separate complexes that crosscut the town’s streets, drains and chalk quarries. In the roughly half km you can see on a guided tour they’re pretty uniform, well-maintained and have good ventilation.

This is pretty much the… um… I hate casual use of “trifecta” – maybe “golden triangle” for D&D tourism. The tunnels were dug mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries to store goods for the towns and especially for the fairs of Champagne. They contain underground sections of palaces, almshouses, hospitals and yes, dungeons. And they’ve hosted anchorites, literal underground cults of various kinds and, perhaps best of all, Freemasons, who scratched drawings of compasses, rules, plumb bobs and the like into the walls.

So what can we learn from being down there?

First, they’re a uniform, sensible size for excavations, even given the ease of carving out the native soft chalk: 5-6′ wide and about as high at the top of their arched ceilings. i.e. just about big enough for a handcart. Face it, the D&D 10′ corridor is a goddamn cathedral if you’re hacking it out with pickaxes. That soft chalk is easy to carve into blocks in order to wall passages back up, BTW: have a think about what might be behind that recent addition…

Temperature is a constant 50 degrees F or so, humidity a reliable 95%. This keeps clay and chalk mix in the walls workable: you can draw on the walls with a sharp stick or leave handprints. They are covered in little marks: carved and painted writing, tool marks, notes regarding how many wine bottles were left there in 1810, and how many taken out in 1813, who this store belongs to and how much that cost… and especially arrows. Arrows in all directions. Because every direction has been important to somebody, once.

They used to have a bunch of doors, you can see the holes where the hinges, locks and sometimes doorframes used to be. It’s pretty much impossible to tell if something was carved or written yesterday or a hundred years ago. But you can tell if you’re in a really old tunnel because the ceiling will be furrowed and ridged with the beginnings of stalactites.

The floor is fairly flat and hard-pressed. You could maneuver a wheelchair around if you needed to, but a donkey couldn’t turn around (and they’re allegedly incapable of reversing).

They’re full of candle niches and you can tell which those are by the soot. Some junctions have chimneys to the surface, for ventilation, possibly for fires (both for cooking and for drawing air into the tunnels from other openings). Those chimneys don’t just go straight up, they twist and turn so it doesn’t rain down them. Storerooms are just passage cul-de-sacs. Visibility is about 30′ at the longest: most of the time curves in the tunnels, moving shadows and the visual noise of the rough-cut walls don’t let you pick stuff out farther than 10-20′.

A few stretches are lit by optical fibres. Yeah, I know, that’s cheesy and weird and you wouldn’t put it in your dungeon. It looks great, though, lke mysterious fairy-lights, or like the rock wall is only paper thin and the bright day outside is trying to get in. Are you sure this isn’t an old post-apocalyptic tunnel complex? If it were, cheap, low-loss optical fibre would be a great way of lighting it. Maybe with a big lens or reflector at the above-ground end.

BTW, those nice folks at UNESCO have compiled a list of tunnel meccas for you. I should tell Roger the GS about it.

And if you’ve read all the way down here you deserve a much more exciting link: here, mapping the caves and tunnels under Nottingham, with videos. Just click it, you’ll be glad you did.

* That’s more than the next year. I’m taking a holiday from foreseeing.

On CHA, WIS and POW-based magics

May 12, 2011 2 comments

Hill Cantons considers treating Charisma more directly as reputation and ditching all non-physical stats for D&D PCs.*

This post is not really a response to that, but instead a repost of something I said in 2007 regarding That Stat That Means Magical Potential. I propose that we mostly don’t know from the rulebooks what to do with INT, WIS or CHA, beyond a couple of standard applications/effects, and that POW in CoC and Runequest is even worse. The effects of STR are easy to visualize: it tends therefore to get a lot of in-game use. But the effects, the meaning, of the “mental attributes” are less understood, so we have less to apply tactically at the table. And the same is true of vanilla D&D’s magic systems, which is too bad because they could actually give us some insight into the in-game meanings of the attributes.

What do I mean by that? My gold standard for a rule is, can the players take tactical advantage of it? Can they use it as a tool, plan around with it? Can they imagine uses for it that I do not feed them? For me,  AD&D 1e MU and clerical magic do not meet this standard: the way the magic works is a glassy, impenetrable surface. (Same goes for magic in CoC, but there it seems intentional.) Players get spells and they apply them. Maybe they invent clever applications, but they can’t try out new spells unless you provide a novel system for doing so. This model of magic reminds me of what lots of folks hate about thieves: it’s like they have their explicit skills and nothing else. And if those are special thief skills, then nobody else can hide in shadows.

But if they had some understanding of how magic worked then maybe they could ask questions and invent their own effects and just plain be a bit more magical. Rangers do this all the time – “I search for tracks… I collect firewood… is there a plant that can help here?” So I find that rationalizing the magic system is one of the most important elements in making it usable by the players. And I think the following might help with that. And it would probably base magic off CHA, though WIS could do, too.

So. POW. The influence of classic works of anthropological theory on CoC is obvious: it’s written all over Petersen’s rule- and sourcebooks. Oliver Wolters (dead anthropologist, historian, colonial officer) had a theory of personal political power (the ability to influence people and events: Charisma, in D&D terms) in SE Asian society. He said such power was seen as a symptom of inner, spiritual power, which he called “prowess” or “soul stuff” (pretty much POW in CoC. Bear with me).This power varies from person to person, and determines personal effectiveness, leadership ability, ability with magic and ritual, and the occupations associated with magic (fishing, hunting, navigating and war). It doesn’t imply wisdom or education or knowledge or physical strength, but it has a direct effect on success because the universe would be inclined to go with your actions and leadership (luck), just like people would be naturally drawn to your innate superiority (“as bees are drawn to nectar”).

According to Wolters’ view of the Indonesian belief systems he observed, you were born with a certain amount of it, based either on your lineage or your conduct in past lives (opinion differs). Some further social implications follow from this, to do with the natural aristos of aristocrats, and an ever-diluting and sinking system of status, which Geertz wrote about in his book Negara(which really does read, in its completeness and airtightness, like a gaming supplement).

People are naturally drawn to follow charismatic leaders (per Wolters prowess is both POW and CHA) both as a compulsion and because, as cogs in the greater machine, they share in a larger total group POW (spiritual rapport with the leader yields a whole that is greater in combination than separately, although not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts).

This smells like a theory of gravity to me, but I don’t think any model of its relative strength over distance has been put forward – such a diminishment of force over distance seems to operate in Lovecraftian literature, though:  without it there could be no ‘moment of introduction,’ on which to hang the horror. What interests me is that this neatly explains the slippery and weird attribute POW and its associated effects. It also suggested some links with the Mage line of products. POW governs magic (natch) and also luck (which is explained as unconscious magery).

Note that on this schema, magic of all kinds is an appeal to the way the universe works, it’s neither “reality hacking” (something like James Maliszewski’s Termaxian magic) nor the trust in the Powers of Fate that prayer tends to become in RPGs. Instead, your world-view is a sort of spiritual extension of yourself, like a field of force: it exerts an influence on people and things around you.  When you encounter someone or something else your influence competes with theirs (in Greek terms, your genius has a chance of overmastering theirs).

So how do you use it? What I like about this interpretation is that it makes the attribute a more active part of the magical exercise – untrained magery could work something like Clerics without Spells, turning undead could be a POW vs POW (or WIS or CHA) battle, and raising the supernatural stakes is liable either to draw the heroism out of your spellcaster (as their POW overmasters the opponent’s) or turn them (either away or to join the enemy, who has superior supernatural charisma). The ability to increase POW through a POW vs POW battle is not analogous to spiritual ‘exercise’ or ‘increasing skill’ – when you overcome someone else’s POW you effectively snip off a bit of their authority – they spiritually ‘pay tribute’ to you, increasing your authority directly (though this is not modelled in the game as a zero-sum operation… not sure why, or if there’s some further bit of thinking here). This maps neatly onto Polynesian ritual cannibalism, BTW, in which one ritually ingests the strength or force of one’s enemies.

There are other implications for games with Cthulhuvian elements, which might include your flavour of D&D:

– POW also governs SAN, because it represents one’s spiritual negotiation with the world. Encountering another person’s POW is dangerous but intelligible: no matter who wins, you stay in much the same mental/spiritual place. CoC Monsters are spiritually powerful and fundamentally other (we’re not really in Wolters’ territory any more, but you can kind of follow him in this direction, with the right twist of mind…). When you encounter them, their power actively disrupts yours, their world-view intersects with yours and is toxic… modeled as SAN loss, a loss of self-guided mental structure. This is the sense in which I’ve understood John Tynes’ discussion of the more powerful monsters as a kind of mental plutonium. The disruption of your POW is either experienced as trauma (simple diminishment) or a reconfiguring to the monster’s perspective (which is why you can’t play a permanently insane character: all such folks go over to the enemy, as reprogrammed but disfunctional drones). Implications for the undead are left as an exercise for the reader.

– The pooling or investing of POW explains the formation of cults and the strange hold cult leaders have over their followers: they start when the cult leader is overborne by the POW of a monster. The resultant collective POW (that of the monster reflected through the leader) acts as a honeypot for impressionable souls (those with comparatively lower POW), who ‘pay tribute,’ to the collective POW pot, further emPOWering the monster/leader. This is why you have to both mentally and physically separate followers from their leader before they will be ‘cured’ of their cultism. It may also explain why monsters adopt mad human leaders as intermediaries between themselves and larger groups of followers, rather than leading cults personally – aside from the scaleability advantages of a franchise organisation model, the monster may realise that its own direct presence will disrupt the POWs/SANs of its followers, making them somewhat more loyal but a great deal less functional – the leadership effect can be had without the damaging side-effects by refracting their personal magnetism through the leader, who acts as a sort of power-translator or transformer [Ken Hite notes: must write up the “magic as electrical engineering” rules in my head.Yes]

From this perspective, the tendency of cultists to enact summoning rituals may be seen by the monsters as an annoying pathology in their control network (because it brings cultists into direct contact with the monsters, reconfiguring their own POW/worldviews), a bit like being stalked by fans. On the other hand, the whole cult-formation thing might be seen as an irritation or simply irrelevant: there’s no evidence that anyone can control or ‘switch off’ their charisma/soul stuff/POW – it might just be a side-effect of high POW that people trail around after you.

Now I just wonder why Sandy Peterson did such a poor job of explaining it in the rulebook, and if Greg Stafford (or whoever first put POW in Runequest) also read Wolters, or came up with the whole thing in yet a different form. Which, given Greg’s penchant for shamanism,  he may have.

Best short ref to Wolters’ own work: his essay “some features of the cultural matrix” in O W Wolters: History, culture, and region in Southeast Asian perspectives (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982)

*In response to ckutalik, yes I see what you mean. But I like having mental stats for PCs, even if they’re hard to roleplay. Challenges are good. They help you visualise who your character is, even if you don’t always succeed in being them. And you can save against them (INT for memory/education, WIS for common sense, will, morale, CHA for persuasion).

What happens if you drop a gelatinous cube into the Tumbling Dungeon?

May 6, 2011 4 comments

This, by the way, is also what the formless spawn of Azoth looks like when it’s wandering around a vertical dungeon and refusing to fall apart like a proper liquid would. Only black. And here’s Telecanter’s tumbling dungeon.

…there are moments in that movie where it really looks like some spirit or shroud of a ghost rising to wreak its terrible vengeance, and moments when it looks exactly like a liquid, and moments when its sharply cut edges are spooky all by themselves.

So thinking about Telecanter’s hall of four spheres*** it occurs to me that the Indiana Jones billiard ball is not the only hazard that could be flopping aimlessly around an unstable dungeon surface. And checking back on the old Gel Cube I find I like it more than I remember. I’d always thought of it as (a) a stupid trick by a bored DM and (b) a simple herding device for a recalcitrant party. But what if you’re investigating the lair of the mad alchemist or wizard? Isn’t this exactly the sort of experiment you’d half expect to find? And what if the party are sleeping or resting or incapacitated in the dungeon by other threats? Isn’t this just the kind of thing to make them wish they were more alert?**** Why do folks love the Shoggoth and hate the Cube?

So how could this elderly trainwreck of a monster provide some additional fun? First I’d say make it hard to burn, and have it do damage to armor first – that’d give even your recently paralysed MU one round of clothing protection before he’s Cubefood. Mechanically, I’d say the Cube doesn’t get stuck if the corridor’s a bit too small: it’s deformable enough that if there’s a hole under it that’s more than, say, 70% of its area, it will slowly sink into it, and keep sinking until it finds a new cubic space to occupy.* Oh, and the whole “slow” thing; I say Cubes and shoggoths alike aren’t slow as such, they just have poor acceleration and deceleration. They can speed up or slow down by 1mph (or say 3mph for shoggoths) a round, up to a maximum of 60-70mph. Certainly fast enough to do lots of damage to themselves and anything else in their way (a 10′ cube of water is more than 30 metric tons!). And they can turn, say, 90 degrees per round, -10 degrees for every 1mph they’re currently going forward. So most times you encounter them they’re just moving like supertankers in port: slowly and carefully. But if they get a good head of steam up as they run off the cliff into the lake they’ll tumble and bounce and skip across the surface. At least a couple of times.


1. What if it were averse to something – salt, say? Or attracted to catnip or fresh meat? Then the PCs could herd it around the dungeon themselves. But it won’t go through closed doors – it doesn’t feel a gap. And if it comes to the end of a corridor it’ll reverse. Long-term dungeon inhabitants will know all these tricks, of course.

2. See how it doesn’t digest dungeon walls? Clearly there’s some list of what’s digestible. Clearly you could carry offcuts in indigestible flasks or larger containers and use them as… artillery ammo? Because it won’t splash but it’s a pain to get rid of once it’s in your granary/breastplate/stable. And I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to snip bits off it – the mechanics for “defeating” it are vague about just what that means. I’d allow cutting weapons to sever it, thereby turning one big hazard into lots of smaller ones.

3. Alchemists are always “digesting” stuff in their flasks. Now it’s a treasure/McGuffin: go get me some Gel. And like Spawn up there, it doesn’t want to be used, so you’ll have to chase it around the dungeon once it’s realised it shouldn’t be chasing you. And it can knock stuff over and close doors and slip down cracks and into the sewer system. And it can swallow all the keys, even if it can’t use them.

4. because “mindless” just isn’t fun. It should have some sort of intelligence, just an entirely alien one. It should know enough that it could find a lair, sneak out at night and paralyse/digest a couple of cows or children, and then disappear by morning. So you start finding these bleaching skeletons around the place and frightened villagers but no explanation. And if it’s not water-based but something else altogether then it might show up in deserts or volcanoes or as the unintended consequence of universe-rending dimensional gates and passwalls.

5. Of course if it is water based it might be able to alter its size/viscosity in water. Drinking water. Which gives me an idea for displacement puzzles – do you have to float a boat/platform/statue, flood an area, swim up somewhere? Get the Cube into the water column and see how much taller it gets (I’ll spare you all my computer adventure game type weight-on-a-seesaw, catapult, airlock, hydraulic and wobbly floor puzzles. You get it). With the right breadcrumb trail and an indigestible howdah you could enlist it to carry stuff out of the dungeon for you.

6. Or like an anemone it could adopt a different shape in water. And/or like a nudibranch it could swim surprisingly efficiently, turning a slow, lumbering land threat into a serious (magical) lake guardian.

7. What if it could communicate, like Thumper, by slapping on the ground, sending booming waves of shock around the dungeon? Who/what would it call? What if it could break through thin sections of wall/floor or crumbling stone bridges?

8. What if it’s one form of the last “stone” left over from constructing the sky and therefore theologically highly important? What if you could compress it into an ooze golem? What if it brought you stuff – clues – to lead you around the dungeon to the cheese, and eventually enticed you into the mindswap device, the same trick its current mind fell for many years ago? Then you could have the fun of taking the mindswapped character’s player into the next room and offering them a choice: either continue as the Cube or play for a while as a ringer for the DM – someone who’s trying to pose as the player’s previous PC but who knows nothing about the story so far, and who had their own reasons for coming down into this dungeon all those moons ago.

* No, I’m not going to model the mass to surface tension ratio or viscosity on this thing: my sense is that if it’s about as dense as water and somehow manages to maintain a cube shape then it could probably be repurposed as some kind of super-material, so hand-waving is all you’ll get here.

** Telecanter, when are you going to link all these posts together or provide an index page or something? This is awesome stuff and it deserves to be collated and popped on Links to Wisdom. srsly.

*** put the cube and the spheres together and you get… a big mess? Bits of caustic jelly everywhere? Deadly pinball? Something that can move the balls around so they go places gravity wouldn’t just push them?

**** yes the being digested to death thing is suitably icky, but I’d guess it kills mostly by suffocation. 10′ of water is considerable pressure, but not a crush attack. But if it falls on you it’ll do… 2d6 per 10′ of fall? And engulf you instantly.

On mere valour

May 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Toynbee convector offers an extract on the extraordinary bravery of some exterminated Inca.*

If I were running a smart-ass Vancian or Lieberian 4-colour fantasy I would certainly include Goblin and Kobold bards who sang the bitter defeats and astonishing sacrifices of their brethren into immortality. I would have the self-righteous humans pick these songs up on broadsheets and propagate them, sometimes changing the names or fitting them to their own tragedies of war, sometimes rendering them as romances or fantasies, sometimes simply repeating them verbatim and adopting their heroes as universal icons. They’d be chanted on playgrounds and chain gangs. Maybe these laments would not be accepted in the salons of power until they’d been gussied up, arranged for string band and majestic horns, their themes all but submerged in a layered, repetitive formalism. Maybe nobody would know that the Marcus Garvey or Che Guevara or Olaudah Equiano of my world was a Kobold, maybe they’d know but it wouldn’t matter. Maybe none of that would change the humans’ genocidal urges.

Alas, I missed scurvy awareness day.

While I’m tilting at sacred cows, here‘s a nice analysis of the British royal family as a brand. I actually think none of the four worlds the author describes is quite the one we live in, each of them could be a nice graft onto your own snoozing former empire.

* I’m not going to make any friends around here posting about my discomfort with the implicit politics of a relentless stronghold-raiding game – its colonialism, its orientalism, its racism, its historical echoes or its home ethnicity, its reliance on unexplained categories like “good” and “evil.” For me, these days, part of the attractive puzzle of the game is that I nonetheless find it puzzlingly attractive, despite its many unattractive qualities. I hope you can enjoy this post without being derailed by this note.

Railroading in fiction, fairytale logic

May 2, 2011 1 comment

I MUST NOT write any blog posts until this tiresome bit of real life is out of the way. Depending on how you count that’s either a week or 3 months. So in the meantime I’m going to lazily link to other people’s genius.

1; being of direct relevance: Jovial’s proposed campaign frame (in comments) that asks “who is the greatest monster?” The audience, of course. Always. (recut for clarity)

So they start human in a zoo deep underground, trying to find their way to heaven. But in doing so they lose bits of themselves so [it’s not clear] how human are they when they finally escape.
They might need gills to swim through an entire underground level.
And wings to fly.
And spider legs to climb walls.
And brain tentacles to fight psionic combat.
… Each step not so bad… the end result…

Maybe they are quickly captured on the surface … and put into a zoo, since they have become freak animals!

I would like to run part II of this campaign. The PCs, shunned by humanity, have started up a modest rare minerals trading company atop some mountains in darkest Thibet. Their main customers are somewhere on the Sphere of Fixed Stars: they make deliveries personally, through a combination of Space Mead and immensely long lifespans. One day humans show up at their Alpha Centauri depot – it’s their very first alien contact! They’re all excited but kinda freaked out to meet the PCs! Could they introduce the humans to the Galactic Federation (and its curious zookeepers)? Maybe they could become the humans’ lovably dangerous sidekicks as they all go tramping around the galaxy stirring up trouble? What will happen when the humans discover the PCs’ forgotten brains in jars and start asking awkward questions?

2; you know Lovelace and Babbage, right? This here should be familiar to all writers of fiction and just slightly shame-inducing for anyone who lived through the adventure path years. The “usual method” is the standard opening gambit for CoC modules, and one that still makes me die a little every time I encounter it.

3; I hate prognosticating about what’s authentically medieval, but if you like some fairytale almost-logic in your gaming, History Blog has a Westminster Abbey mosaic for you with some high-medieval, low-sanity prophetic alchemathics. Just remember to cull all your dogs at 9. And I totally don’t understand the hedge thing.

“The end of the primum mobile” means the age of the universe when it will come to an end – at the Day of Judgement. The verse claims that this can be calculated by tripling the life-spans of God’s other creations. So the hedge, standing for three years, is tripled to give the life-span of a dog (nine years), which in turn is tripled to give the life-span of a horse (27 years). The final age, the life-span of the primum mobile, is 19,683 years – three raised to the power of nine.