Archive for February, 2012

Telecanter wrote an unbeatable one-line campaign pitch. I stir in Central Asia

February 14, 2012 7 comments

So Telecanter wrote this typically inspiring post, the final line of which is undiluted adventurous expectancy:

A city of ancient magic users so corrupted that mages only visit it through constructs and familiars.  Constructs battles constructs for glowing relics.

Oh sure, you say: sounds like ASE or Encounter Critical! or even the fabled city of Carcosa itself, rippling uncertainly out there past the blasted plain McKinney gave us to wallow in. With a dash of Battletech.

I say it’s all of these and more (notably, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace*), mixed up and plopped down on one enormous hex map. I say I may finally have found my very own dungeoneering rabbit-hole right here, my League of Extraordinary inter-genre gates. And alas I only have 30 minutes to write it up today. But I’m going to, because (a) I promise to return to this topic, so this will be the umbrella post (tag: Baikonur) and (b) I’ll be too busy to post at all for the next 2 weeks, so I want to leave you with something evocative and links-rich rather than something ranty or scattershot.

I’ve said before that I don’t want to run a game in pseudo-medieval Europe. Don’t get me wrong, I like it there, but you guys have it covered. No, my go-to place for Anomalous Shenanigans and Excitement is Khorasan and Mawarannahr, known to its current divested imperialist overlords and satraps as “Central Asia.” Partly because it has an immensely rich and mostly ignored (in English) history of its own, partly because it has suffered apocalypses and post-apocalypses the like of which we prefer not to dream about even in our fantasies, but mostly because as a benighted western Orientalist I can imagine really wild things happening there (like Lovecraft placing Leng in Tibet – where it gets a flavour he couldn’t have written into it himself).

And pancaking its whole history into one unbaked brick gives us a fertile ground for an actually coherent, flailsnailulous genre-hopping campaign world. Because the cities of pre-modern CA – like Samarkand, Khiva, Kashgar – are Arabian Nights points of light: walled citadels in the desert, fed by hanging gardens and watered from hundreds of miles away by underground networks of pipes. Mutually suspicious, they each struggle to develop their own technologies hidden from the others. And the landscape is pretty much the Platonic ideal of wilderness, whether you want it to stand in for the Western’s Painted Desert, for icy tundra or for the steppes (which it mostly isn’t, actually). It is, after all, where the prototypical barbarians came from. But mostly because in that landscape there is a multitude of weird anti-oases, from constantly burning gas craters to dried up seas and stranded ships to… exactly those things Encounter Critical is on about. Peasants scavenging rocket boosters to sell their ultratech alloys – because the boosters were dropped right on their goat pastures and nobody else seems to want to go near them.

Which brings me to Telecanter’s one-liner. A city so corrupted that the mages will no longer go there in person, but send constructs. And, of course, hapless and desperate adventurers. Because at the blank heart of this blank space on the map we find Baikonur (hedged about, natch, by false Baikonurs…)

Which may or may not be so bad in reality, but in our fantasy Central Asia it takes on shades of Pynchon‘s hallucinatory vision of Peenemunde – maybe even becomes part of an unholy trinity, together with Pripyat and Berzengi, Empty Palace of the Mad Archmage. These are the hot sites – the ones still too toxic to have been picked clean. To get to them you have to pass through their outlands – their Leng plateaux and mutagenic caves, where you can pick up some dinosaur-riding sherpas who know the way to the edge of the glass plain, unless you can hitch a ride on the villaintrain or swipe a patrol vehicle.

Of course, even the long-dead cold sites might still be hot – and have pickings – underground. Which brings me at last to Merv. From 1050 to 1150 (ahem Wessex) Merv was one of the brightest centres of the enormous and technologically vibrant Seljukid Empire, ruled by a series of double acts featuring Conan-type Barbarian Kings “assisted” by ingenious, obsequious Persian Viziers. Until it was utterly destroyed by the Mongols in 1220. After that it became pretty much exactly Beedo’s Black City – a massive ruin with a little living settlement clinging to its side – a megacity megadungeon collapsing into the scrub. Later interpreters have scavenged it for those things their ancient books and scrolls have told them about – things which may themselves turn out to be rather hallucinatory** –  but they haven’t known what to do with the buildings that they can’t classify. Which is most of them, and definitely all the craziest, most fun ones:


Check out especially recent digitization work on the Greater Kyz Kala (translation: “big fort-like thing we still don’t know what it is”) and the ice house (for keeping ice, for your refreshing sherbets, obviously, for when it’s 110 degrees F outside).

Finally, in case you were bored by that whole thing, here: fighting pirates with airships. For reals. And for the Cthulhu-minded, I see the Russians have just drilled into an underground lake in Antarctica in hopes of finding a “truly alien” environment. Countdown to Shoggoth starting… NOW.

* check out this gallery of localisation covers for the novel. I like how everyone conforms to their stereotypes: America predictably goes with the image of the car turned horse carriage, the French are doing something vaguely sexy that I don’t remember in the book, and Russia goes typographic (I mean, really, with this material?) but it’s the Serbian edition that wins.

**mmmyeah, ask me about that another time…

Ill-advised flamebait post: the dirty little secret of level caps

February 9, 2012 26 comments

So Trollsmyth posted an interesting, open-ended question about demihumans in 5e and BANG. Level caps in the first comment, end of useful discussion.

OK. Some people on both sides of the level caps question think their answer is simply and obviously the right one. I may be one of them, but I may also be open to persuasion. So please, if you support level caps, try me, because I would like to know why they could possibly be a good thing, by which I mean make for a more fun game experience.

The trick with being persuasive would be to lead with an argument that doesn’t make you sound like a crazy racist. Some pointers:

1. Don’t lead with “because I want humans to dominate my game” unless you also have good arguments for why, then, players can choose to play crippled non-humans, and/or unless you want to talk about why domination is important to you.

2. Don’t say “because I’m emulating Conan (or whatever other Appendix N title)” unless you also enjoy railroading to replicate Conan plots and over-ruling players who deviate ever from acting in a Conanlicious way.

3. Don’t say “it should be there because Gary said it” if there is any aspect of any Gary-penned edition of DnD that you don’t use. And if you can answer that one, then also say why you don’t play Lejendary Adventures.

4. Don’t say “balance” unless you can explain exactly how a few advantages at low level are supposed to balance not getting to play any more at higher levels in a way that actually works for the player party, and how all this would not be better handled (but still badly handled) by different xp targets for leveling up.

5. If you say “because that’s how I roll” I’ll smile and say “sure” but you should know that you haven’t presented an argument.

Here’s the dirty little secret of level caps for non-humans (or demi-humans, if you prefer): if you use them, then the player who decides to play an elf anyway is telling you up front I don’t expect to play in this game for long enough for the cap to matter.

Jeff Rients is the only person to field a workable answer so far, I think.

What G+ game should I run (apart from Monkey Magic)?

February 7, 2012 5 comments

So this is currently the idlest of idle questions. I won’t be running a game at least until I’ve got back into playing more regularly, and given my schedule I shouldn’t be running a game at all, and I’m in France so for all you US people my game would probably be at an annoying time, like 4am EST (1am in LA) on Thursdays. But IF I were to run a G+ flailsnails game…

a) might you be interested?

b) what would you most want to play?

What’s the difference?
Carcosa-Barsoom is a high-colour, high-sci-fantasy rayguns and battleaxes interdimensional romp through Emperor Ming’s closet and salt mines, with a kinda-serious plot: you start as members of slave races. What are you going to do about it?
Encounters on the Sea of OS’r is the Odyssey/Sindbad with minimal packaging, adapted to the contextlessness of flailsnails – you wake up on a raft with stuff you can carry on your person and you encounter stuff – hopefully highly creative, weird, opportunity-laden stuff – and you take your treasure away at the end of the session to spend it elsewhere. If you wanna stick around for multiple sessions and grow independent goals and set down a home base that’s awesome but the game is made to work without any of that.
Vikings and Pirates of the Spice Islands is my southeast Asian pirate game I’ve been doodling on for years. You could be European explorers or native slave-raiders or Chinese pirates right at the birth of the East India companies. Worlds are colliding, history is being made, it’s dangerous and piratical in the classical sense, but with silk, spices and transvestite spirit-mediums.

c) Wait what Monkey Magic? Ah yes.

First Zak said You have a time machine. It can only be used for the following purpose: you may go back in time and change one rule or one other detail of any game. The rest of RPG history will be as if it had always been that way forever. What do you pick?
And Matthew Miller replied: In 1974, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax created the world’s first roleplaying game. Inspired by their fanatical interest in ancient China, coupled with a love of Chinese mythology, the classic novels The Water Margin and Journey to the West, wuxia cinema, and the weird tales of P’u Sung-ling. It took the gaming world by storm.
And then Roger the GS posted about wisdom and that made me think:

how could you fit the essence of Monkey into a DnD game?

The key is Wisdom. In this version WIS models your enlightenment and possibly harmony with the Tao. You work to increase your WIS, just as you would increase your level. But increasing WIS usually means pursuing goals directly at odds with those suited to increasing level – you have to practice non-attachment, restraint, judgment and moderation. You should still take decisive action, even fight when it’s absolutely necessary, but you should always seek the non-violent path, which provides the best outcome for all. Like humanity in Vampire, it can go down as well as up. Unlike humanity, it’s not just a wet blanket rating – it conveys some benefits (TBD, but at least a “turn” like ability on low-WIS creatures; yogic flying; speak with various things) and sage-like insights. Most of all it’s needed for interplanar Ascent to Nirvana and other related realms. No clerics (or, maybe, everyone’s a cleric), but yes to INT, CHA and CON-based spellcasters.

Monkey’s character sheet (first draft). But I’m not running this for flailsnails because the WIS mechanic is too unbalancing. And I’d have to mess with standard DnD clerics. And other spellcasters might be borked on the WIS-collecting front. There’s still a lot to figure out.

AD&D modules. Also: Wargamer Heaven in Paris

February 6, 2012 1 comment

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.

Second, this is pretty much wargamer heaven. It’s a huge, gorgeous show of “relief maps,” on at the Grand Palais in Paris right now (nicely made website).


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.

Dejah Thoris turns 100

February 1, 2012 3 comments

…well, she’s probably supposed to be at least 200, I think – reds live a long time and she was no teenager when John Carter first met her in 1865.

But it’s a hundred years since the first publication of Under the Moons of Mars (serialized from February to June, 1912 in All-Story). And what a hundred years it’s been.

I could wax poetic here but I won’t. I’m looking forward to the Barsoomian retro-clone that’s supposed to come out this year more than the movie, and in celebration I think I may run a game – maybe even a G+ game – later in the year that bridges Barsoom, Carcosa, Mongo, Jorune, Sulawesi and more than likely the Pliocene, along with whatever Flailsnailers bring. So here‘s the first of the campaign maps (click to enlarge a lot):

Barsoom Lowellian map, from ERBZine

…and here’s a monster/city, for your quatrefoil-print men to explore using their Yuggotech Gossamer Gliders (indispensable, fully disposable, completely non-refundable!):

…and here’s a reminder of the alien landscapes all around us:

Because with all this embarrassment of riches of flying islands and helium engines and sinking cities and dessicated Martian salt-pans, I might just spend half the campaign exploring the amphibious possibilities of tidal sand bars and estuaries (great for your Southeast Asian pirate nemeses, natch – or maybe for all those awesome new Slaad that Scrap Princess has just invented!).

Update: thanks to Matt Kish I can add William Timlin’s The Ship That Sailed To Mars to this list. There’s something distinctively wonderful about Edwardian scifi, that I would dearly love to capture, without it turning twee. I have no idea how.