Archive for March, 2012

in response to Noisms USE THESE MONSTERS challenge

March 21, 2012 1 comment

Noisms’ post on randomly selecting monsters and building a campaign world around them yielded some amazing craziness from John, which deserves a post of its own (only he seems not to have a blog). Extract:

Deformed and stunted descendants of man. They eke out a decent living farming but are subject to the predations of the thri-keen who raid their crops and hunt them for food…
Wise, sinister, solitary reptilian custodians of knowledge. They watch over the entrances to the ancient cities and guard libraries of collected tomes. They have strange diets and strange obsessions. They will sometimes dispense cryptic knowledge, when the mood takes them, but they are very dangerous. Supplicants must ask all their questions from kowtow to avoid catching a glimpse and being turned to stone/salt/ash/quivering hunks of meat.
Storm giant
These are the other end of human evolution. They still possess the ancient technologies that grant them control of lightning (electricity). They never set foot in the valleys and deserts where halflings dwell as they can only survive in the rarefied atmosphere atop high mountain ranges and peaks, where they ponder the imponderables from their gleaming metal towers or occasionally take sojourns to other planets.

I’m too tired to do a good job of working up my own arbitrary race setting right now (though I’m intrigued by the possibilities for a Land of the Dead game offered by the benevolent end of the Umbanda pantheon),* but I do have another game to suggest: make a campaign setting, or a one-page adventure, or a Sea of Os’r island, out of search terms people use to get to your blog. Here’s a selection from today:

godzilla chair
minas tirith details
gormenghast map
raised plunge pool design
barsoom ship
luke skywalker high

It pretty much writes itself. …actually it sounds kinda like Toxic Tartary…

* races – or classes? – for a dead Umbanda game:

Caboclo: spirits of deceased Native Brazilians… highly knowledgeable about medical herbs…
Preto Velho
spirits of old slaves who died in captivity or after being beaten or flogged by their masters. They are wise, peaceful and kind…
Boiadeiro: The spirits of deceased cowboys who lived a hard life in the sertão…
Marinheiro: Spirits of deceased sailors or fishermen that use the power of the ocean to protect people from evil.
Exua phalanx of spirits that are adjusted to Karma following the laws of Jesus Christ. They are confused with demons by the use of tridents… The female exus are the Pomba-Giras. Their action field is love… The Malandragem exus… are spirits of bohemians

Who wants to be an ulfire Mamluk? Toxic Tartary by post

March 20, 2012 4 comments

Is anyone interested in a pbp flailsnails game set in Toxic Tartary (previously Baikonur*)? Updates would be every few days and it wouldn’t stop you flailsnailing elsewhere (dimensional gates are a feature, not a bug). No G+ or other special accounts necessary: I’d set up a blog for it and update there, you can enter your actions in comments or email me if they’re secret.

The setting is like Girl Genius played absolutely straight, with industrialized magic in place of steampunk, and golden-domed Samarkand and doomed, brooding Tashkent in place of pseudo-Germany. You don’t play sparks – they plot from their guild-halls in the citadels – but otherwise the power level is wide open: it’s the sort of game where you might become Khan of all the Uighurs or Rajah of Shangri-La, only to have it all taken away the next week by giant brass Timurid mecha-tigers. System is ODnD-compatible, hot-rodded down to the bone, Searchers of the Unknown-style.

Character classes (hewing close to Jeff’s Platonic model); everyone’s built off a fighting man template, plus:

Nomad: whether you’re a man-stealing Turcoman, a Uighur hill-pirate or a Mongolian hordesman it’s all about three things – honour, horses (or camels or ponies) and really bad Arrak. You herd sheep, raid towns for slaves and scavenge rocket parts from the desert. You live by wits and cunning, and spurn dentistry and plumbing. Think barbarian and ranger skills plus horse archery. You have a big fractious clan full of unreliable allies and rivals, all hoping to become the man who hands out the jezzails when it’s time to sack civilisation, again.

Soldier: if you’re a mamluk then you’re a cleaned-up version of the Nomad – literate, presentable and with a  promotion ladder that runs all the way up to provincial governor. If you’re a free lance you could be mafia, religious warrior or pilgrim guide, protecting caravans from the desert pirates, or a test pilot or marine on the War Machines. You fight with discipline, know your artillery and get wary respect from the townsfolk. People won’t assume you’re a murderhobo – even when your sort periodically rise up and kill the caliph, it’s generally to replace him with someone better organized and/or more ambitious. Think pilot/driver/camel-jockey skills, plus field-stripping cannonry, some strategy and tactics, organizing locals…

Thaumatechnobricoleur: they said you were mad at the Academy – but not quite mad enough for promotion, so you’re out getting experience in the field. Any sort of experience that glows in the dark and isn’t bolted down too securely. Sure, your core competencies are all occult-technical mumbo-jumbo, but you’re learning the vital supplementary skills of espionage, larceny and extortion. Don’t think Magic User/Thief; more like alchemist/researcher/spy. You know your ancient languages but your education can seem distressingly tightly focused to scholars of a more ethical-social bent, like the…

Lawgiver: right across the Abode of Peace, from sea to shining mountains, there is One Law… which nobody around here understands. So they get you in to advise them with your Opinions (although they reserve the right to ignore you if they think you’re full of it). They also press you for stories and news of the wider world, open their libraries so you can enrich the mind of man by adding your experience, and bring you those transparent blue tablets with the worrisome inscriptions to interpret. Think part priest, part detective, part Cthulhu bookworm, part judge. Comes in avuncular mentor, wild-eyed poetry-spewing mystic and saint/fakir/mountebank flavours.

Merchant, or smuggler or ambassador: you work for one of the noble merchant houses of Cairo, or you’re a cog in the great transcontinental Armenian Karimi trading machine, pushing pepper and potash to the petty princelings out Beyond The River, or you’re an emissary of the Khwarezmshah, bargaining under the table during the annual tribute drive. Whoever the boss is, they’re far away and you’re the man on the ground. Your most important trade item is information and you live and die by your mouth – from bribing port officials to politely threatening bandit lords in their throne-yurts, it’s all about judging how far you can push, what you need to know, and who wants to change the status quo.

Carcosan: deep in the badlands, out beyond the Plain of Glass and the Sinking Pits, there are great tracts of land where nothing makes sense any more, where the men come colour-coded and everyone’s in the slave lottery and they don’t ride camels but something… else. Is Carcosa in Khazakhstan? Or is it some other place altogether, just loosely connected by magical gates? Even the Carcosans don’t seem to know. Use Jeff’s chargen as is.

Green Man of Barsoom: 12 feet tall, four arms, tusks and intolerance for weakness. Their gate opened ages ago and they rushed in on Red Man promises of easy plunder and a retirement plan involving Jasoomian head-polo and iced sherbets. Then the gate closed. In some sense they’re all searching for a way back home, but in another they’ve actually become quite good at extorting protection money and securing the borders of petty baronies and magico-military installations. Racial advantages mostly obvious – these guys are the most focused on STR and CON out of everyone.

Entertainer: in a world where nomads and settlers eye each other with suspicion, where every city guards its secrets, where the men of Samarkand say “if you meet a snake and a Bukhariot, kill the Bukhariot” and those of Bukhara say the same of the Samarkandis, where every tribe of nomads thinks itself the only rightful owner of the desert, what does it take to become the most denigrated, the most shunned, the least respectable of all who drift their short span beneath the sun?
Mime. Or juggling, or tumbling, or play-acting or music or any other kind of entertaining-for-hire.
But it pays well. And it gets you access to all the richest houses and caravanserais, and if you’re a lissome young dancer with your wits about you, it can propel you up the social ladder like no other job on earth. And although everyone from preacher to warlord to witch-king may denounce you, they’ll generally spare you when they torch the city – because you’re not dangerous, right? You don’t care about politics, right? At least they can stay your execution for just one more night of storytelling.

Payoff for getting this far: Toynbee’s Tale of The Airman and the Nomad, just the sort of encounter I’d love to have in Toxic Tartary, which it’s hard to imagine having in Carcosa.

* part of my reason for wanting to do this is to nail the setting down. Like, deciding on a name and sticking to it would be a start. If you play, you’ll be helping to do that.

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3-handed sword

March 19, 2012 4 comments

If you’re going to include four-armed Green Martians in your game, I reckon they ought to benefit from being able to wield 3- and 4-handed weapons. The trouble is, it’s not so easy to imagine them – I mean sure, you could provide a sword with a really, really long handle, but does it make any sort of sense? Would it actually be cool?

Here’s what I’ve got so far – can you do better?

1. four-handed pentadent: a long stick with a bizarre and ridiculously violent-looking forest of blades on the end, wide enough to hold back a whole column of infantry if you have no regard for your own life.
2. battle-sprange of Kapleurk: a weird metal abortion full of spiky bits and handles, clearly infringing on the Klingons’ copyright – combining aspects of halberd, punch dagger and shield, it works rather like a swiss-army knife, which is to say not very well at all.
3. Radium gatling gun. Big and unwieldy, it requires two hands to hold and another to crank the handle. The fourth is needed for flashing big thumbs ups to all your envious Thark mates.
4. whirling voulge-tree: these really only require two hands, but for full effectiveness you have to use two at a time, interlocking the points for a spinning wheel of steel deathspikes. Not recommended for children under 9 feet tall.
5. Wajestic War Wurlitzer: not technically a weapon, this gigantic pipe organ will nevertheless make you the envy of any operatically-minded enemies you encounter. Exerts an irresistible fascination on vampires, and its gas-powered version is capable of burning them right out of the sky.
6. Cannon. Strictly this is also not a 4-handed weapon, but you can laugh and laugh at those puny red men trying to heave it off their crushed thoats after you’ve bowled them down with it.

If you’re worried about balance it’s because you’re not having enough fun

March 16, 2012 3 comments

+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 mechanical 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:

Fight table

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

Schtick table

01-04: Cast cleric spells like the class^
(^ OK, maybe I went a bit nuts with the balance is for schmucks thing here. Let’s say that casting a spell costs 1d3 HP and you must have as many HP donors pooling their luck/strength/moxie as the level of the spell (each donating d3 to make the spell work), so now everything’s a co-operative ritual)
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

Being-in-the-world table

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.

my opinions, let me share them

March 16, 2012 Leave a comment

1. +Scrap Princess said: those crazy story games people. Sometimes I think I want a system for social interaction, sometimes not.

I said: I’m coming around to thinking that anything you really care about in a game SHOULD NOT be systematized UNLESS you urgently want to make it into a little chess-like minigame that’s a holiday from the tactical infinity of just sitting there saying what your character is doing next.

Corollary to this: if you make something into a quick die roll it’s because you don’t really want to think about it or because in itself it bores you, but you can imagine there could be fun from having it go wackily wrong once in a while.

2. Magician’s Manse said: weapons should be a bit more differentiated than just small/med/big. Like slashing = d8 and piercing = exploding d6 and bashing = d6 but plate armour gets reduced by 2AC.

I want weapons to have some special effect, MtG card style, which the player has to remember. Like special crit/crit-miss effects, or “always strike first” for long spears – stuff like that. I’d even get players to suggest such effects for their own weapon of choice, with the proviso that I get to add caveats/trade-offs.

As DM though I’d just stick with some fixed die for monsters/NPCs (simpler is better) and weird crits as the fun-maximizing allows. The important thing is for players to have enjoyable options, not for the world to operate perfectly consistently.

3. Beedo is a genius. He blew my mind this morning with his gate/summoning machine/building. Right now I want to run a kind of Black City game full of alien magitech toys Seriously Considered. There would even be room for it in Carcosoid Turkestan.

His genius lies in laying the tools of a Cthulhuvian civilisation out, ready for PCs to fiddle with. And he totally outdoes a post I’ve been thinking about that presents similar temptations. Will the PCs ever figure out that a non-human sacrifice could work to power it? …and how disposable might goblins become, or stray colour-coded Carcosans, once they figure out they themselves don’t need to be sacrificed?

It occurs to me that a ritual-magic-tech civilisation probably has a lot of architecture involved in its machines, which brings implications – little mobile technology, lots of labour, especially if materials are important: no steel frame structures if it all needs to be volcanic rock, etc. Also certain stones, woods, crystals, bones etc could become as necessary to their tech as coal is to a steam age or neodymium to computing.

What if Yuggoth has the only known source of that particular fungus you need to levitate stuff? If there was extensive inter-world travel at some point in the past-future, there could also be ecology that works across those gates – what if something on Earth only sprouts if it’s pollenated by something on Celaeno? You’d probably want to wash the dust off your boots if you knew that. Or if pre-Permian Mass Extinction life had some strange effect on post- or visitors from the future wanted to mine the past or even seed it with the resources they needed (laying down a crop of fossil fuels for later harvesting).

4. Down at Story Games, there’s some complaining about how hard it is to run CoC. My pull quote: “the players never even thought to look in the cellar” – that’s your problem right there. Who doesn’t know that the cellar is trouble in a horror/haunting game?

I’m with Tony Dowler: it’s a specific genre piece and you really have to play it in or around its genre. Also this: The thing with CoC though is that if you don’t have the intuitions, it can just collapse. As an aside, some of the collapse states are pretty interesting games in themselves. Yes. And this: Graham Walmsley’s “Stealing Cthulu”…talks about… the difference between PCs and Lovecraft protagonists. The protagonists in Lovecraft don’t really investigate. For the most part they mystery is spoon fed to them until they hit the big horrible reveal at the end. PCs are not so accommodating. At least they shouldn’t be, dammit.

I’m going to say some unpopular things about Barsoom

March 12, 2012 6 comments

This is not a well thought out post. I’m trying to think through some stuff here and would appreciate your help. I’m trying to figure out why I think John Carter isn’t gameable – and I concede that I could be totally wrong about that.

First, the movie is very well done, and if you’re interested in swords and adventure movies with lots of fighting and classic storytelling, I’ll echo what almost everyone else in the OSR is saying: it is worth your time. It’s not great art*, but it is good entertainment, and it’s faithful enough to the source material that I for one didn’t leave the theater saying “what the fuck was that?”**

And I love Barsoom with a great big love. I find it inspiring as anything. I want to run games on it. But from a sandbox DM’s perspective, John Carter’s adventures don’t love me, and the film really points up why. Because I have no idea how to run a game of John Carter with PCs in the starring roles, and when I’ve tried it’s tended to be “minor picaresque adventures around the edges of Barsoom/Mungo.” Maybe because my players aren’t bona fide heroes, but I suspect more because the nature of the conflict, the parameters governing what makes for good decisions in this setting, are basically different from common sense, self preservation and sustainable ambition.

This post is really an adjunct to 2 other posts I wrote recently, on how the PCs should be the stars and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the scenery and how Cowboys and Aliens was the most DnDest movie evar because at least for some of the time it presented a heist-type situation that a bunch of misfits had to figure out a way of cracking. John Carter is the polar opposite of that. In Cowboys and Aliens the protagonists could potentially be just about anyone (ie the players have freedom to choose their PCs), and they’re responding to a universal threat – JC on the other hand has to behave just so to fit the narrative trajectory – to fulfil the role of The One, thrust by events (fortune? Destiny?) into the role of Uniting and Saving all the fairies of another world from The Threat. Sure, the film doesn’t get as explicit as issuing prophecies or anything, but he’s the only visitor from outside, he’s the only one able to unite red and green men, he’s got the crazy jumping ability like nobody else, he always performs… it’s not just Conan, it’s a bit of Superman. And that leads to high-fantasy, high-destiny, high-narrative-control story game fodder, and the trouble with that is…

I was going to say: the trouble is it’s a different aesthetic from what I like, but why not turn up the heat? Or it only works as long as JC acts like a hero, but if he doesn’t then why not let it be about Cugel the Predicted? Or is it that the background continually conspires to thrust JC into exactly the place and situation he needs to be in, to make the critical difference? No, not quite that either, although it speaks to railroading… No, I think the really big problem with it is that actually all the important conflicts are within John and/or in the relationships between the core characters, and consequently all the other big stuff that’s happening (wars, tests, taboos, sacrilege, schemes) is really just window-dressing – background. Which is why it always drapes just so, to frame that soap opera character drama to best effect.

And I’ve never been able to make that work around a gaming table. My games have always been about exploring the world, finding out about plots and doing something about them, saving the city or surviving its destruction These are actually the point in my games, and getting the support of some tribe of people would be the main event, if you could somehow manage it, because it would radically change what you could do. But they’re not the point for JC and therefore they’re trivial for him – the main point is getting together with DT. And although I’m trying to imagine playing a game where that was true (Amber, I guess) I’m drawing a blank on how to avoid the use of such huge resources immediately changing the nature of the game into something entirely other.

Maybe I should just relax about that. This session, since the green men decided to follow you, we’re playing Horde Wars. Next session the Plague will come and we’ll be play postapoc, and the week after it’s up-close-and-personal jumping assassin wars in Helium. Maybe that would be great. But I worry about totally losing focus – the sense of the campaign – because so many problems would become trivial when you have a horde with you, and so many others come up to swamp your previous goals, like how are we going to feed this army?

Have you ever tried to play a game like this? Did you manage? How did it work out? Do I just sound like these guys, saying “horror is hard”?

* They sure spent a lot, and the art direction is obviously enthusiastic and skilled and has really nice touches. Still, it didn’t look as good as, say, The Fifth Element. I don’t know why, really. Too generic? Too familiar? Zodanga’s awesome, the flyers… are merely ornithopters. Somehow I wanted more surprise.
** It was both nice and peculiar to see Posca, Caesar and Mark Antony from HBO’s Rome in basically the same roles – a nice reminder of the early Roman Warrior cover art, and the costume design was gorgeously Art Nouveau. If I were called Kitsch I’d change that, but I guess it’s working for him. At least in this role.

Come see the sights of Baikonur

March 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Medium Aevum’s recent post on Britain’s touristic delights strikes me as a brilliant photo-essay on why you might want to play in any (cod-medieval, Anglophile) game. It also answers a set of basic questions a la Jeff/Brendan – where could you live? What’s the landscape like? How about towns, castles, dungeons, mysteries? etc.

So I’m stealing it to convince you-all to try swapping Europe for fantasy-fucking-Turkestan, or Turan, maybe (a better name overall than Baikonur, I think). Britain’s on the left.

bucolic Hardyesque cottage karakol yurt

Bucolic Hardyesque moorland Kopet dagh mountains

tashkent market street

craggy coastal castle Herat citadel

fishing boat where the Aral sea used to be

Baikonur launch grounds

Come for the mysterious towers, stay for the weird mutagenic radiation. Actually, that last pairing will fuel the next photo essay in the series – inexplicable towers of the Turanian plain:


Make April into “games other than DnD month”?

March 8, 2012 5 comments

I’m going to start with a confession. I’ve never been a really big fan of DnD.

Look, DnD can conceivably stretch to cover a multitude of worlds and thoughts and approaches. And it’s perfect for flailsnailing and I love that. And there is much virtue in Zak’s most disturbing room argument – there’s no particular metaphysical reason why DnD can’t stand in for the gamut of roleplaying experiences, and maybe if we want DnD to contain all possible worlds and genre possibilities then the only way to achieve that is to jam all possible worlds into it. Or something. I get it.

And system doesn’t really matter – I’ve had fun with a whole slew of historical and sf campaigns that ran under GURPS when I could be bothered or were played almost totally rules-free when I just didn’t want to deal with the crunch, and it’s all been fun and I could run it all under some kind of radically reduced 6 stats system, and with some fancy footwork you could totally write a CoC or superhero or Cyberpunk conversion for DnD. But.

Still I think something is lost with this approach. Everything ends up being tinged with the same set of attitudes – look, I love trashy swords n sorcery fun and serious swords and sorcery agon and mock-serious science fantasy and deadly serious what if the world were Hindu-Toltec Wellsian Martian grimdark three-legged imagine-til-you-brain-bleeds speculative phantasy. But.

Jorune in particular, despite appearances, is really not a gonzo dungeoneering setting. The important differences that set it apart are rather delicate, though, so converting it to LL would tend to erase them. If you flailsnail in Jorune I think you lose a lot of what’s distinctive about it. And if you bring dungeoneering expectations to your Sherlockian Gaslight game then maybe you play Victorian Heist and maybe that’s awesome but it’s not The Solitary Bicyclist – there are moods that I think are not well served by the mental baggage of the DnD character sheet.

And if you have a new and challenging flavour to offer the world, is it best served by being added to a list of possible curry ingredients so people can see how it works in combination with other flavours, or should you showcase it on its own, demand that it has its own dishes, insist on its separate tradition?

I actually, honestly don’t know. But exhorting the OSR to embrace the gamut of systems doesn’t seem to have worked (even when done by such luminaries as James M), and I think that might be partly because we haven’t demonstrated just what exactly is lost by DnDing so assiduously. Or maybe partly because we tend to write about DnD because we know that will have an audience, or (my case) because we don’t care enough about mechanics per se to insist on them?

So I have an idea for a blog challenge. A thought experiment. How about spending a month writing about – not just other games, we all know those exist and can be fun – about the important differences? About stuff that could not, should not, or even might just show you a different face if it were not, DnD? Maybe in April, the traditional month of challenges?


The doom that came to Bukhara, or: how to lobotomize a dreaming city

March 6, 2012 4 comments

If you’re a poetically-inclined prince there’s no finer place to be than sipping sherbets in the leafy teahouses of Bukhara at its height, in the time of the last Abbasid Caliphs.* It is said that the city called to great souls then from across the Abode of Peace so that they enriched it with all the treasures of their own lands, their courts-in-exile making a world-within-the-world that was the envy even of mighty Baghdad.

If you’re a more practically-minded prince then the brain-drain that the Dreaming City caused was a right royal pain – something to be overcome, competed with or destroyed. But this gets you into a war with a numinous quality. What makes a city dream?

If you listen to the poets they’ll tell you about the majestic courtyards of Bukhara’s mosques, the awesome height of its grand minar and the sweep of its peerless Registan parade-ground at the foot of its hulking citadel.


So if you’re an upstart barbarian lord like Tamerlane** then you seek to outdo Bukhara in each of these particulars – to make your own capital higher and wider and sweepier and consequently more magnetic – to strain against the limits of stone and sinew and eye (only to watch in fury from your hidden tomb as your own descendents abandon war for irresponsible dreaming in the trap you built for them). Or perhaps you trample its mosques and minars into dust, fill its registan with your battle-tents, only to find that in a generation or two all has been rebuilt, grander than before, its cracks and crannies testament to a history enriched by just such moments of horror. Or you seek to strip-mine the city for its sacred geometry, replicating it in perfected form or tearing it up and transplanting it wholesale to your own cities, trusting the architecture itself to carry its charm into your hands, only to find that such emulation serves to canonize the original.

But if you’ve learned from Marx that things stand on unmajestic foundations then you seek to do your damage elsewhere. Then perhaps you know exactly what you’re doing when you celebrate those majestic spaces by freeing them from the untidy tangle of streets and souks, squalid sewers and kinked alleyways and nested, complicated, concealing, dingy low dwellings that surround them.

Then you might conclude that the best and most lasting way to destroy the memory of a city is to remove all the untidy people and convert it into a museum.

That’s how Bukhara stands now, its sacred precincts laid bare as eggshells in the scoured waste of a new highway system, cleaned up and clarified and made ready for study: pre-dissected for the benefit of the magical researcher. And there’s something terribly wrong about the storefront city that’s left behind.


It’s not haunted, quite – no personal shades have been allowed to cling to its walls or empty spaces. But it still dreams – dreams that no longer call to poets and princes, but to something else. Something blank and inhuman and cold. And it still speaks to the cities around it, but now it infects them with a gaze of the void that stares back into the jealous hearts of those Emirs that resented its magnetic presence, when it was alive.

Still the sages of the Great Tatar declare it an exemplary piece of preservation work: they’ve even suggested it as a model for similar projects in urban theurgosurgery – to no less an urbomancer than the Dragon Emperor himself, as a remedy for his own accursed, ancient, magnetic megalopolis, Old Kashgar.

* Tenses get so muddled where time travel might be involved. When Rhialto the Marvellous visited Bukhara shortly after its “clarifying regeneration” he affected the guise of a local elder or Aksakal. He was not able, however, to conceal his naturally flamboyant self-esteem, so that he was quickly identified among the Tatar’s rather less colourful functionaries and persuaded to leave with undignified haste.

** Intriguingly more properly Timur-i-leng (Timur “the lame” so I’m told, although I’m suspicious of the derivation)… which might help explain why his burial place has never been positively identified.


Cowboys and Aliens shows the evolution of DnD

March 5, 2012 3 comments

Did you all write about Cowboys and Aliens and I just missed it? I may have, I was awfully busy last August, but the only trace I can find in the archives is a casual mention on Roll for Initiative – and I find that strange, because for anyone who groks that DnD is really a western game, it’s just about the most DnD movie ever. More obviously it’s absolutely the most Weird West movie and just about the most Encounter Critical! and with a few tweaks it could be seriously Carcosa, too.


Here’s why you should watch it: it presents a kick-ass OSR adventure module, ready to be ripped off [edited to add: hwrnmnbsol informs me that this might actually be an old module – Legion of Gold for original Gamma World – worked into a film script. I’ve never played GW (alas) so I cannot confirm], with relatively few of the Standard Hollywood Tricks that would invalidate the whole setting for gaming purposes. It has a couple of monsters, a magic item which is only a bit McGuffiny, and a classic bait-and-switch NPC. And most amazingly for a movie, the situation it presents is pretty open-ended, at least up to about half way through Act 2. You could totally run it, pretty much straight off the reel.

It also works like a little history of DnD. Explaining that will involve spoilers, though, so this is your warning right now (plot synopsis for the weak/impatient).

The opening of the movie is pure Old School Golden Age. You wake up with no memory and a mysterious space-bracer. Our hero’s credentials are established in a fight with a low-level murderhobo gang: he is clearly at least a 5th level fighter (Jake, Chaotic Neutral). From there we go Boot Hill just long enough to introduce the rest of the party: a fish-out-of-water Normal Man/Scholar (“Doc,” LN), an undercover druid/MU (Ella, LG) and another high-level veteran, this time a Warlord (Dolarhyde, NN or CN). Then all hell breaks loose with the first attack and the adventure’s parameters are set: dependents are stolen and must be got back; the magic item works against the baddies; tracking a wounded alien is the obvious first task; getting back the fighter’s memory is the second. Best, most DnD feature of all – let’s imagine that like the average murderhobo you have no dependents, no compassion, no social ties of any kind – why would you pick a fight with these aliens? Because they’re after the exact same thing you’re after: gold. And they’ll steal it from you just like they steal dependents, so sociopaths can get on this plot train too.

Tracking leads to a set piece in an ingeniously imagined strange environment, then to information leading to the dungeon entrance, which presents a daunting challenge.

So far so OSR. And I’ll pause here for 2 digressions:

#1: No less than 3 DCC adventurer-funnels are introduced at various stages (Jake’s Gang – a Carcosan band under a 4th level fighter-tyrant if ever I saw one; the Injuns-who-must-be-convinced; and the abductees who must be unhooked from the BadGuyMachine). BTW, did you know Sandy Petersen invented the funnel? Obvious, really.

#2: my favourite moment in the story – the point where things are widest open, where I for one wasn’t exactly sure where we were headed – is this one shot where our murder-revenge-hobo posse rides into a gulch and they’re viewed from above, from what just might be the runaway alien’s perspective, and suddenly I’m reminded of the opening of A Princess of Mars only our “heroes” are the murdering Indians and the alien is the innocent prospector… But then the moment passes and the aliens are Giger’s creeps but less creepy and we’re back in good old Colonialist Adventure mode.

Anyway, back to the point of the post. It’s here, with the stakes set, that the movie heads in a Dragondance/Ravenlost direction and loses its dramatic premise and gamist focus of these are ordinary folks facing a crazy threat what will they do? Because it turns out that Ella’s another kind of alien (with Raise Dead on demand!) and Jake has amnesia-recovery insights and the Fate Of The World rests on their actions and most of all the aliens always attack right at that moment when Jake would otherwise have to face the roleplaying challenge of actually trying to convince people of anything and so now all choices are obvious and you gotta do what you gotta do and so it’s all dramatic scenes from here on out: stuff must happen in the nick of time, people must have the right backgrounds and secrets, all parts of the key must come together in the lock and it’s Hollywood’s Usual Business, which lead us down that whole Adventure Path Destiny Screenwriting 101 rabbit hole. And you can see how that’s crack to a certain kind of gamer/viewer, because when the scenery is set up just so you can get the light to fall where you want and it’s wow and ooh and aah and “surprise” and plucky orphan stabs the monster and boom at just the right moment for the hairsbreadth escape and every action has a Moral Meaning.


Also at some points it goes totally Feng Shui

Only the movie doesn’t quite give in to it, like Favreau’s a little ashamed of the formula or something (sure, you knew Craig and Wilde were going to have Romantic Tension but it’s not quite what you were thinking because she’s not that kind of sexy alien chick but this kind), and that’s what keeps it all applicable to OSR gaming. Remember the funnels? They’re really funnels. Extras cop it like they were Raiding Innsmouth. Most of all, although the elements are there for a Magic Key railroad, it doesn’t at all have to work like that if you’re a slightly creative DM – nobody has to make stupid decisions in order for the plot to work. So the bracer can be set to explode as well as fire? The PCs could learn that without needing aliengirl to tell them. Let them have 2 or 3 bracers: it won’t invalidate the challenge of taking on the aliens’ ship/base, although it may make the possible tactics more varied. So you have to get the exploding bracer into the powercore to make it all go boom? Show the core. If you’re feeling generous you could even let Jake remember it all well enough to draw a map, so you can run the dungeon as a proper heist (“they got their power from this glowing ball – I remember it swung out on an arm – I guess it’s kept high up in the tower”). In fact, dump the whole amnesia thing, say the fighter previously escaped but from a moving vehicle and that’s why he doesn’t know the way back to the base at the start. Same result, allows for more heistable background, less serendipitous recall.

Aliens: the fact that I can’t find a screenshot of these guys tells you that you should just use Giger’s original chitinhead instead, or whatever would fit your campaign. They’re pretty much reskinned blink dogs, but they have Powerful Jump instead of actual teleporting. 5 HD, AC 3, claw/claw/bite for 1d8/1d8/1d4. In their flying machines they totally show off Favreau’s lust for Gulf War news footage – they have exactly the quiet creepiness and sudden destructive power of A10s. AC goes down to 2, speed goes up to airplane but somehow a running horse can still keep up with them.

Bracer of Lightning Bolts:

seems to have unlimited charges, but maybe it’s really only 1d20 and we just don’t get to see it run out. Glows and beeps when aliens are near (unclear why, but there you are), destroying surprise for both sides.

Finally, Filmdrunk may have provided the title for Joesky’s fantasy heartbreaker: EXPLOSIONS & VELOCIRAPTORS & BOOBS.