Archive for September, 2011

Sir John Soane, megadungeoneer

September 28, 2011 3 comments

Monsters and Manuals has reminded me, obliquely, of something that everyone who likes dungeons should have in their mental arsenal, by talking about the whole “D&D is a toolkit” discourse that you sometimes encounter on the blogosphere.

That’s me. D&D turned me into a game designer, which it probably wouldn’t have done if it were more coherent, made more obvious sense, showed better organization or fewer obviously kludged-together subsystems. At 7 I loved Lego. By 12 that Lego enthusiasm had transferred pretty much directly to RPG design.

So while some other people in the OSR seem to see D&D as this, I see it as this. And dungeons very often as this.

Oh, this here?

Soane Bank of England, extract

click to get giant, complete original

That’s the Bank of England imagined as a ruin and presented, on that basis, by its architect to the money men. They said yes, please build us the building that one day might ruin like that. Really, if you click nothing else here, click that. Ripe and ready for Zak to annotate with denizens. And this right here is what I picture behind every DM’s screen. Who doesn’t want to go spelunking through that?

…oh, you know, while I’m at it, some things Zak reminded me of:

Escher – double planetoid. Amalfi and Santorini as environments for parkour.
Why is there no parkour in your megadungeon? What about in your cubiform multiverse?

Call of Cthulhu is missing an act

September 20, 2011 3 comments

Through all this endless back and forth about when and why it absolutely isn’t OK to drop an encounter on somebody that you thought they might like, a realization came to me – one that James Maliszewski apparently had years ago but, y’know, I can be a bit slow.

The best way to start an adventure path is probably from a sandbox.

James does this all the time in Dwimmermount, by dangling hooks in front of his players, which they just happen to find while they’re doing what they do every day – looting Dwimmermount. Here’s a magic item. It transports you somewhere mysterious, where there’s a load of peculiar stuff, that seems relevant to Dwimmermount. There’s a scroll which tells you about another location elsewhere. The guy who translates scrolls wants magic red spoons: he’ll trade info for them. Info that leads into or back to or across other plots. And so on.

Yeah, I know, it’s not rocket science. But thinking about it made me realize how often I haven’t done it in the past. How whole games have somehow decided to forego this bloody obvious method.

Including my most favouritest game of all, Call of Cthulhu, which routinely starts with some bunch of freshly rolled characters receiving a disturbing letter from their uncle – ie a mission briefing that tells you “the plot’s that way, go engage with it.” Now I’d felt uncomfortable about this method in the past. I’d agreed with other players that it was “a bit contrived,” that the PCs often didn’t have good reasons for abruptly getting in up to their necks in trouble that would probably kill them, after driving them mad. But I hadn’t really thought about what was wrong with it from an RPG point of view.

Here’s what I think is wrong: it robs your 3 act drama of its first act, which is normally dedicated to getting to know the PCs. Zak pointed out that CoC is about The Menace, and that’s what everyone cares about, and nobody’s really interested in the 1920s as a setting itself. And that’s Act 2 stuff* – the antagonist or antithesis – but skipping Act 1 means you don’t lay out the stakes – what The Menace menaces. And that’s probably why The Menace always threatens to unmake the world and all creation – because that’s a stake the players can get without any context. But if you had an Act 1 and you actually knew and cared about your characters and they had some history and some bit of the world that was their own to defend, then The Menace would have more purchase in the world: it would have specific things to get its claws into. And the PCs would have more tools or situations against which to place it.

So I still love CoC, but in future I think I’m going to seed CoC adventures in other, persistent settings. Let’s say the PCs are pirates. They do their pirate thing: they annex some secluded coves and get some reliable fences for their loot and try to recruit crewmen and follow rumours of richly-laden ships and periodically pretend to go legit so they can knock over a warehouse or a governor’s palace and so on. And while they’re doing this they get to hear about disturbing stuff, and they get to choose what to do about that. And in this way they can build up a general picture of the world and make their own deductions about what might and might not fit in it. And they’ll get to hear about some things that definitely don’t fit: that menace the world they’re adapting themselves to exploit.

The Orthodox School of Robbery would chime in at this point and say “yes, yes, but you’re still thinking about it wrong right up front there: you’re not running a CoC game at all, you’re running pirates, and if you try to force your players into one when they came to play pirates they’ll be pissed off – because you’ll be railroading in their sandbox.” Yeah well, obviously it’s player directed: as a DM I’d have to chill, have NPC schemes going on but no overall plot and all that. Sure. But there’s a cost to the pure sandbox model, too: where CoC classically lacks a first act, the classical sandbox never gets out of first. Because nothing else in the world is as important as the PCs and their decisions, the world can never develop its own “agency,” to use the buzz-word of the month. Start actually making important changes to the world because the PCs didn’t engage with that scheme you told them about and you’ll be accused of railroading them into engaging with it.

Well, perhaps. But that’s actually how the real world works. That would be a breathing, dynamic world with consequences both for action and inaction. Maybe in such a world the opinions and actions of NPCs could also matter. In a world like that there might even be room for an Act 3 that didn’t consist purely of bookkeeping – counting loot, leveling up, looking for the next dungeon.**

* CoC seems to be deliberately stuck in Act 2 all the time, actually: Sandy Petersen’s onion skin model, in which solving each mystery leads to a bigger, deeper one, is an ingenious method for turning Act 3 resolutions back into Act 2 introductions of the antithesis. And it’s orthodox dogma that you cannot eventually win.

** Note, I’m not talking about an “end game” here, I’m talking about closing particular chapters or threats or opportunity windows in the world, not the End of the Campaign.

Reward for getting this far:

Mirror of Heissenbergen. Using this mirror the PCs can capture one creature or object from the world. It will then remain in the mirror until released (say, by a magic word or gesture). If the creature or object has some sort of will of its own, roll a D30 and subtract the creature’s wisdom or charisma from the result. It will escape from the mirror in that many days, unless released earlier. If nothing has been captured but the mirror is set to release anyway, small hot stones will spit intermittently out of the mirror until the release order is canceled.

A surfeit of ogres. Every road out of town abruptly has exactly the same ogre encounter on it. If these ogres are dispatched they will be replaced within d12 hours with a duplicate. The ogres are being put there by the wife of a retired adventurer who lives in town. She’s worried her husband will leave unless he’s discouraged, and she’s got hold of a magic or ultratech replicator from his hoard, that works something like the mirror, above. It’s set to release ogres right now, so that’s what she’s using. If the PCs find the replicator it will have exactly 2 charges left. The retired adventurer may tell the PCs where he got the replicator for a consultancy fee, payable half up front, half on return, but there’s no way he’s going back in there.

Pallet or palette?

September 19, 2011 1 comment

Can anyone help me out here with a definition?

Palette switching sounds to me like a reference to computer graphics of a previous generation, when you would change the colour palette on a picture to make it look different (we even used to do some palette animation – fake movement through recolouring! Happy times). So I would understand palette switching to mean “making superficial changes to something you were planning to put in your game, so you can repurpose it to new ends or for a new location.”

Pallet switching on the other hand sounds to me like moving stuff around with a forklift. Which could be an apt metaphor for playing a shell game (aka “find the lady) with the players, the shells being large objects not plausibly moved around the world.

Is any of this what we’re talking about, or am I even more lost than I thought I was?

Prof. Conan

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I don’t know anything about this. Jess Nevins spotted it, I’m passing it on.

In 2011/12, he will be teaching on the following courses: “The Relevance of Crom in the Modern World”, “Theories of Literature”, “Vengeance for Beginners”, “Deciphering the Riddle of Steel” and “D.H. Lawrence”.

…I wonder how long it was up on Trinity College’s website.

awesome adventure location and map courtesy of Ancient Egyptians, archaeologists

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I don’t have anything intelligent to add to this, so I’m just going to quote it:

the “world’s oldest topographical map”  was drawn about 1150 BCE… for a quarrying expedition into the Wadi Hammamat (‘Valley of Many Baths’) in the middle of the Eastern [Egyptian] Desert.  The map shows a 15-kilometre (9.5-mile) stretch of the wadi and its surrounding hills.  This fragment…  at the far left of the 280 cm (9’2″) long papyrus — shows the ultimate destination of the journey: the quarry (where they extracted a beautiful grayish-green stone to carve into statues of gods, king, and nobles), a gold mine, a small settlement, and a temple dedicated to the god Amun (the large white area in the middle subdivided by walls).

The story leads to eight man-made caves cut about 20 metres deep into the terrace which had been used as harbour storerooms and workshops — all much as they were left almost 4,000 years ago

…which contain the remains of boats that had come from Punt (Queen of Sheba land, among other things). The boats were disassembled after the voyage. We don’t know why, but I like the idea that they were multi-purpose tools for our ancient travelers: we’re done with these boats: now use them to make biers, litters and shelters. Take two long steering oars and carry the Ark between them.

ETA: Telecanter’s response at the other place convinced me to mirror this over here too:

Bonus Gernsbackian misprint fun: when can I have my flying ear?
Bonus situationist fun: tracing the symptoms of an imaginary plague. The architecture-school-speke is pretty thick here, but it’s making me imagine different kinds of contagions – plagues that are archaeological, epistemic, fetishistic or psychoanalytic… cryptographic. Not sure what to do with that yet, but I feel a table of outre diseases coming on. Something to respond to Joesky’s Lich Itch.

Telecanter proffers an affliction moving through the buildings of a city. I imagine a mundane psuedo-medieval city being slowly enveloped by inter-dimensional buildings, or from a different eras, or cultures. Cool. [that sounds Archigramic to me… ed.]

Also, Cryptographic: a plague on the written/printed word and people must race to try and memorize the books left untouched before they turn into a language no one can speak.

Awesome. I must write up my dimension-hopping-through-architecture setting.

in which I finally get hit upside the head hard enough to get why CoC is “gothic horror”

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment

I was going to tidy this up into a proper post, but I kinda like it in ragged form. If you have no patience for a meandering mumble today I recommend you move right along.

If, like me, you didn’t get why CoC was “Gothic” right away, I recommend noisms’ two year old blog post on understandable vs non-understandable fantasy, which he terms “classicist” and “romantic.”

It was this lucid discussion that made me realise that CoC is the most Romantic of games (despite HPL’s atheism and its association with various stripes of “rationalist” readers). The point being, it’s all about confronting the sublime with your empiricist brain and discovering that the said empiricism is inadequate for holding it – that, moreover, the sublime will break it.

Well, it’s not just that. I think I could’ve given that explanation years ago. It’s more that, in the war between Classicist enlightenment and Romantic mysticism, CoC is kind of a steamhammer, repeatedly smashing up the rationalist works and demanding to be placed beyond their power. The Cthulhoid creatures defy cataloguing, characterization through comparison, or even description because they will not be tamed inside your encyclopedia. Characters repeatedly try to do exactly this – find taxa for them and so on, and they are punished with the removal of their reason. Only hubristic villains ever claim to have plumbed the deepest mysteries, and their claim signals their downfall. Experts are useless in most cases: the tablet you found is made of no known metal, the writing on it is in no known language. In fact, CoC pretty much reverses Sherlock Holmes’ dictum: once you have eliminated the possible, you’re starting to engage with the adventure. The sublime is kept conspicuously behind a curtain, we are told, for the reader’s protection, and it is a fundamental precept of the game that this curtain will not be more than tweaked, lest the game itself end.

Well, actually because the DM should (quite explicitly) not be able to show you what the monsters will do if left unchecked, because it’s unmaginable.

So CoC is one answer to noisms’ question: how would you make a Romantic (mysterious, magical, magical-realist) game, rather than a systematized one which is liable to be “superheroically banalifying“? Magic in CoC is for affecting the PCs with – PC use of magic is actively discouraged, because it inevitably banalifies. And if you do get to use magic, you’re not going to understand it enough to use it tactically – it’s all desperate fingers scrabbling at the scroll, or flapping away at the control panel, hoping for a lucky connection.

Like noisms, I am drawn toward fantasy because of the Romantic, the mysterious: I want to be surprised. But surprise is anathema to player agency: what comes within the remit of the player’s ability inevitably has to become tools, not mysteries – the PCs are inevitably, resolutely non-Romantic intruders in the magical world. They have to react to the Romantic as an external influence. But they can get a good time out of struggling to understand the mysterious – in the case of magic, out of trying to figure out a system, so that they eventually get a kind of tactical grip on it. True, that’ll leach the mystery out of the thing so understood, but hopefully your game has many more mysteries behind every one they figure out.

And maybe that’s why I admire Ars Magica (1 and 2e) so much; outside the magic system the world is utterly Romantic: there’s no monster manual, just a few suggestions on how to build monsters. There’s no European Capitals splatbooks (OK, maybe there are now), just a map and hints of what might be out there. But most of all the magic system itself is like that – just comprehensible enough that you might try stuff out, just opaque enough that you won’t be sure if it’ll work or not. Deliberately open-ended, so that research and spell invention are core activities of the game. And also open-ended in terms of power, so that you can know what your own limitations are and plan a little ahead, but you have no idea how far others have gone, or how deep the rabbit hole goes.

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Bored with the Greek islands yet? A correction

September 9, 2011 4 comments

So I made a stupid inattentive mistake yesterday:

If this calculator’s reliable then using ancient shipping technology your rough limit for seeing stuff in the water from the masthead – like sea serpents or sandspits or those tell-tale rocks that mark a reef – would be about 6 miles, ie one small hex on the map. But the Greek islands stick up out of the water significantly – the highest point on Santorini is 1850 feet, so assuming perfectly clear air (which it isn’t) you could see it from your mast-head up to about 50 miles away. The highest point on Crete is over 8000 feet so there’s a band of potentially unknown water maybe 60 miles wide in theory you could see that over 100 miles away, and you should never be out of sight of at least one of them. Likewise in theory you could see Crete from the highest point on Santorini and vice versa (yeah, that’s a bad oversight on my part) but my sense is that the haze prevents this.

So I got height data for a few of the more prominent islands and adjusted the  map to show which islands should be visible from where (again, quick and dirty – I should’ve got multiple high points for Crete):

click to embiggen

…and it turns out that the only islands that might be secret from the others – that you wouldn’t find just by waiting for a clear day on the mountaintops of other islands – are Kythera and Antikythera. Which is kinda cool, because that’s where the secret ultratech lab is located. Telecanter – can you do anything with this?

And just for fun, here’s roughly what the gods might be able to see from Mount Olympus – hubristic unbelievers and boatsful beauties beware the mainland (although the Peloponnese should be OK)!

Bonus for reading down to here: what exploration looks like – “sea-caves” off Lake Superior. Who wants to be first off the rowing boat and into those dark declivities? Or maybe some cave diving to see the riches under the waterline?

An observation on the Sea of O’sr

September 8, 2011 5 comments

You guys remember that, right? The project launched just about a year ago to create a collaborative seacrawl and possible adventure path for the OSR. It’s still over at Lands of ARA but the last update was a while back.*

So, speeding through the Cycladic islands (larger) in Greece last month aboard the Flying Cat (Athens to the south end of the Cyclades in 5 hours! Eat that, Odysseus), I was thinking about the assumptions of seacrawling and hex size and population and Homer’s wine-dark sea, and my conclusion was:

in Ancient Greece you could see a whole lot more from the mast-head of your pot-bellied trading ship or arrowgalley than you can from an average fantasy cog, knarr or galleon. We weren’t out of sight of land for a single moment through the whole 200 mile voyage. In fact most of the time you could see multiple islands on both sides of the ship, and from the islands themselves the next island over was visible at least as an airbrushed shadow on the horizon, and often as a real presence just across an indeterminate band of ultramarine.

Now granted, these are the “inner islands” of Ancient Greece, the backbone (and doom) of the Minoan Empire – if you go farther east or south things get sparser, but hopping between these big, arid, craggy rocks it’s not only easy to see, it’s pretty much impossible to ignore regular trade and war by oar and sail. It’s a perfect strategy game board, in fact: how many islands can you take and hold? Can you blockade your neighbours? Can you really afford to divert all those farmers into the galleys and rely on Egypt for your wheat? I’d always wondered just how much trade could possibly have been carried on by rowing, despite what I’ve read of coasting and night-harboring in the ancient Med. Now I see it I get it: for many crossings it just wouldn’t be worth the hassle of dealing with the wind.

ETA: so I wanted to check just what the distances were, and I wound up making this quick and dirty map of what I’m tempted to call Pelagia or Minoa – just the islands of Ancient Greece, minus mainlands. The cluster of islands in the upper left are the Cyclades. Athens would be in the upper left corner if I hadn’t excluded it. The small hexes are 6 miles across, the bigger ones 36 miles across (thanks, Greyhawk Grognard for the hex sheet!). The whole of the Cyclades would fit in a couple of 72 mile hexes.

(click on it to embiggen)

If this calculator’s reliable then using ancient shipping technology you probably couldn’t see much beyond 6 or 7 miles from your masthead ETA – NOT TRUE: that’s the distance to see stuff in the water – like sea serpents or sandspits or those tell-tale rocks that mark a reef. Going to Crete (the big flat fella at the bottom there) from Santorini (see doom link, above), you’d get out of sight of land long before you reached halfway
oops both Santorini and Crete stick up significantly – the highest point on Santorini is 1850 feet, so assuming perfectly clear air (which it isn’t) you could see it from your mast-head up to about 50 miles away. The highest point on Crete is over 8000 feet so there’s a band of potentially unknown water maybe 60 miles wide in theory you could see that over 100 miles away, and you should never be out of sight of at least one of them. Likewise in theory you could see Crete from the highest point on Santorini and vice versa, but my sense is that the haze prevents this.

So where’s the adventure? you cry. I want to wavecrawl because I read Moby Dick, not Udovitch – bring me that horizon! My mad wizards demand isolation and wild rumour, not regular mail routes. My inspiration is Homer-via-Star Trek, not Homer-direct: trackless wastes are what I thrive on. Sure. There’s the Indian Ocean for you, and phantom islands of the Atlantic, no worries. But there’s also something good about having contrasts – they make decisions meaningful. It’s fine and useful to stereotype your NPCs sometimes – maybe all your sea captains are grizzled and scarred and missing a limb or two, and maybe Krakens lurk right outside the harbour wall. But there’s another possibility – that you have a relatively tame sea and captains with families and stable occupations who are welcome in port – and beyond that is the realm where brave men fear to roam. And it’s from this safer realm that those rumours of high adventure propagate – because the fisherman who’s been out in a storm once or twice by accident delights in telling of the storm that blew Jason off course, and the pilot who’s had a shiver of foreboding rounding an uninhabited head is willing to believe the stories of a haunted lighthouse, far off the regular routes, which the Phoenicians used to heed.

Payoff for reading this far: great collection of island and other tourist maps. Want to run a Crusader game? Check out Malta and its less-famous neighbours.

* Is anyone else interested in working together to get that going again? (I’m intending to add something soon, you see). There’s also a bunch of seacrawling stuff out there… must work on adding it to Links to Wisdom…

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Another map for the Sea of Osr

September 6, 2011 Leave a comment

It may not have the frondy coastline charm of Kerguelen but kinda-adjacent* Heard Island has dramatic mountains, a highly active volcano, and a set of place names that really deserve their own supplement. Right-click the map here to zoom and scroll and marvel at Magnet Point, Frank Rock (not to be confused with Dissembling and Equivocal Rocks, which I would put either side of it), Mount Separation, Desperation Gulley (I’m not making this up), Mechanics Bay (for all you steampunkers out there) and the delightfully unreliable Erratic Point.

Much as I love me some Mountains of Madness Antarctic exploration I’d probably put this somewhere more temperate, where its occasionally smoky and ashy volcanic valleys could support a Borneo-like profusion of hill tribes and smugglers’ hideouts. If you like your volcano smuggler dens more classical, though, you can’t do better than Santorini, from which I’ve recently returned. Because apart from a massive caldera and spooky little caves-doors and dangerously unstable cliffs it also has the best town-dungeon I’ve ever set foot in, a tangle of winding staircases (not paths, for the most part) where every turn is as likely to drop you onto someone’s balcony or into a plunge pool as it is to get you to a street. Article on semi-public space coming soon. And I for one wouldn’t have heard about it if it weren’t for M. C. Escher.

* adjacent only because Kerguelen’s the closest other land mass, 440km away. No, not really adjacent, I guess.

Lesser potions

September 5, 2011 Leave a comment

With apologies to Telecanter.

Potion of slipperiness

Originally developed to lubricate the joints of golems and quickly adopted wholesale by second-hand golem dealers, the potion of slipperiness is also widely used off-label by escape artists, sword swallowers and cat burglars. It renders the drinker’s whole body preternaturally slippery and somewhat deformable, such that they are practically impossible to handcuff or tie up, and may be able to squeeze through narrow openings, such as between cell bars or through the air feed pipes of fish tanks. They will also have to make a conscious effort not to slip out of clothes and armour, or to hold onto anything. The potion takes half an hour to kick in after drinking: it remains in effect for 1d20 hours. Note that the effect is systemic: users are advised not to eat or drink anything while under the potion’s influence.

Potion of spider climbing

Causes the hands and feet of the drinker to develop clinging claws, allowing them to climb on pretty much any solid surface, and the lower abdomen to develop web-fluid sacs and spinnerettes, allowing them to create spider webs, in order to aid their climbing. The web strands are roughly the thickness of spaghetti. A single strand is strong enough to support a 200lb man (ie there’s no proportionality with actual spider web here: the potion’s webs are much weaker than actual spiderweb of the same thickness might be). Multiple strands may be woven together into ropes to support heavier weights. The potion lasts for 66 minutes or 666 steps, whichever comes first. There is a small but cumulative chance over multiple uses of some vestigial effects lasting after the potion’s useful phase is over. Tastes unmistakably of spiders.


Popular with alchemists, ironbelly allows its drinker to imbibe and/or ingest, without ill effects, the next 1d6 things they can fit in their mouth. A necessary prelude to sampling several of the more exotic potions.

Potion of firebreathing

Combined with a lit torch this allows the drinker to project a flame up to three times the span of their arms, up to three times, to deliver 1d3 cubed damage each time. Side effects include overconfidence, giggliness, loss of co-ordination and/or unreasonable belligerence, lasting 1d6 hours. For 24 hours after ingestion the user’s breath will nauseate anyone to whom they speak, causing -1d3 on reaction rolls. During this time the user may deliberately breathe on victims to cause confusion or wake them from magical or non-magical sleep. Rumours abound that this potion can also help the drinker survive in the elemental plane of fire, but these are so far unsubstantiated.

Potion of incoherence

Renders the drinker incapable of making their point clearly for 1d12 hours. Exact effects are up to the sadistic impulses of the DM or improv acting skills of the player.

Gravel of plausibility

Works something like charm person or a potion of persuasiveness on all who hear the ingester for 1d12 hours, except that the listeners’ basic agreement with the user does not extend to their taking any positive action. That is, listeners would agree to the commands “leave us alone!” or “don’t get up” but not to “come here” or “open the door” or “just hold this for a minute, please.”

Glass of cold awareness

When chewed this fragile glass makes the user acutely aware of what they’re doing, dispelling any illusions or glamours or other states of confusion and temporarily raising the chewer’s wisdom (or intelligence, depending on the DM’s philosophical outlook) by 1d3. Blessed with this new clarity, the chewer must save vs. paralysis to avoid immediately spitting the glass out, canceling the effect.

Soul swap stew

if shared among two or more imbibers this stew will exchange that ineffable, invisible, immortal part of each, that represent their innermost, unchangeable nature, with the others. Note, however, that it will not exchange their consciousness or personality, which are really socially constructed fronts of one kind or another. Deities of confessional or mystical religions will respond to the souls presented to them, not the shells in which they happen to be housed, so this spell acts as a form of transport for the powers of clerics and paladins. Other in-game effects are up to the individual DM and players: it is suggested that certain relationships might be affected (with animals or close family members, for instance) or some outward manifestation of the change of soul be made gradually clearer over time, such as a fondness for loud ties or compulsion to insult elders. Alignment, if used, may be affected.