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Jim Lad and Tin Knocker: Classes for a Romantic Cornwall campaign

July 30, 2012 2 comments

so +Stuart Robertson (of Strange Magic) piped up on the old “how to refigure demi-humans for a humanocentric game” concertina again, and I loves me a rollicking sea tune.

Here’s your basic 7 classes for a Treasure Island/Jamaica Inn/Smuggler’s Cove game. Adjust seasoning to taste for Pirates of the Caribbean, Hardy, Melville etc:

Dwarf = Miner: functionally the same as ever but no immunity to arsenic poisoning. Bluff exterior probably covers up an abused and abusive interior with moments of secret, solitary poetry.
Thief = Smuggler: actually a respected profession among the lower/adventuring orders, though with “fisherman” as inevitable legit cover.
MU = Engineer: for a Stevenson’s Rocket type steampunk feel. Real world examples include Humphry Davey and Isambard Brunel. My first thought was “parson” because of the bookish, useless-in-a-fight angle, but they have no magic in this setting.
Cleric = Fishwife: handy with a (blunt) rolling pin, a bandage and a hearty scolding.
Halfling = Preventive Man: These are the King’s Men who try to stop the smugglers. They’re not all hapless redcoats; some are sneaky spies and/or gamekeepers – Johnny Law in general, and they’re no shorter than anyone else.
Fighter = Haybaler: a big, burly farmhand with drinking capacity to match his fists. Alternatively Navvy, Gunner’s Mate, Dock Worker
Elf = Whippersnapper (whether ‘prentice boy or cabin boy or plucky orphan or maid is pure window dressing). The Jim lad class, knows more than he should, listens in while the parsons and engineers are jawing in the pub, but still yearns to grow up into a “proper” profession.

I like the purity of the basic 4 or 7, but if you wanted to expand this:
Bard = Parson of the fulminating fire’n’brimstone persuasion, or Agitator/rabble rouser, to borrow a leaf from the Hill Cantons. John Wesley was arguably both;
Assassin = Pirate and Ranger = Highwayman, or vice versa – maybe you never quite know what you’re up against there;
Paladin = Musketeer (I thought we were in Cornwall? Yup, all paladins are foreigners on a mission of some kind);
Druid = Moonshiner. Eh? What’s Dust doing over here? Well, I’m using it for “crazy old coot who lives off in the woods doing something the law wouldn’t like.” And although there’s plenty of those in Cornwall, there’s no professional archetype, so I’m reaching for a spiritual cousin. Actually in Cornwall this would probably be “gypsy,” but there’s the old racism card.

This would be better if the classes really mapped onto ways of dealing with problems in the world, but they don’t in DnD either, really, once you get into the demi-humans.

real lost continents are the best lost continents: Carcosa wacky races and asylum notes for the Sea of O’sr

April 2, 2012 5 comments

FIRST, the reason I’ve been silent for a while is I’ve been noodling about writing a little Carcosa/Toxic Tartary Wacky Races game for (among other things) Flailsnails on Google+. The bare outline:

– you can bring whatever lunacy you’ve invented because flailsnails, but at minimum the home setting will have Carcosan dinosaur riders, Mad Max desert buggies, Tharks on Thoats and carnival floats. Racers have to balance the competing demands of zooming across an electroradiant hellscape (thanks Jeff!) with sabotaging each other and roping the local mongrelmen into their diabolical dirty tricks – and the more they divide their attention, the more likely it is all to go horribly wrong;

– the race will be over in 6-8 turns and the prize will be Grand Yet Mystifying;

– your character may die, mutate, get incorporated in the landscape and or reified/deified along the way. Think you can survive a John Boorman bad trip?

I hope to get it up and running in 2 weeks. We’ll see.

Toxic Tartary is Carcosa through a post-Soviet Central Asian radioactive Arabian Nights filter. For a fantasy filter placed over that, see HF Calder’s handy guide to Sky Piracy Around The Dune Sea – of course all of this is happening somewhere in Toxic Tartary, but with the time-spine ripped out of the historical narrative so that everything is always happening at once – pyramids rising, pirates despised/resurgent, gods rising/falling, nobody really knowing what’s going on. Just like real life.

SECOND: “Siberia shmiberia,” you say, “show me the really cold and unfriendly places!” Blood of Prokopius’ Alaskan nightmare looks to me like equal parts militantly anticolonial Cthulhiana (paging jason kielbasa!) and His Dark Materials arctic horror-mining, and that sounds pretty neat, but I want to go south for my Sea of O’sr adventure path…

On the allure of remote islands in the shadow of Antarctica.

Lost taught me everything I need to know about the value to be found in a single 5 mile hex and the special kind of claustrophobia you can get from knowing the world is out there but it’s beyond reach. So you’ve found a chart that shows a lost continent of wonders down in the deep south ocean and you’ve braved the Appalling Sea Gyres and hundred foot waves to get there – what do you find?

First of all, that most of your lost continent is under water:

Zealandia, larger than Greenland or India, and almost half the size of Australia… is unusually slender.*
Kerguelen Plateau is an underwater volcanic large igneous province (LIP)** in the southern Indian Ocean. It lies about 3,000 km to the southwest of Australia and is nearly three times the size of Japan. I note, not quite in passing: It is thought that Thule and Cook**** may have been a larger single island in the past, and there is evidence for a submerged crater between the two… Volcanic heat keeps the crater on Thule Island free from ice. Just like Arthur Gordon Pym told us...

I am never resorting to Mu or Lemuria again, these are much cooler – and could be seaweed jungle exotica if they somehow breached into view. Look at this handy Antarctic azymuthal: if we add Rlyeh we get 3 points of…  well, actually not a pentagram but a square. Which in some sense is much creepier and more suggestive: Wells gave his Martians tripods because nothing in Earth biology (that he knew of) has 3 legs, and it’s since become a cliche that odd numbers mean alien. But the square, or quincunx (drawing Antarctica’s Mountains of Madness*** into the loop) implicates human involvement about as clearly as it’s possible to do. Giving us a fourth (or fifth) point over the South Sandwich islands near South Georgia.

And suddenly the Falklands War snaps into focus – Argentina, favourite hidey-hole of Hitler-breeding programs, vs. Britain, Evil Emperor of the previous century, fighting over those desolate bits of rock where the colour out of space touches down or, more likely, where it threatens to erupt into the sky. Because check out Gough Island, where you wash up while escaping the Cyclopean basalt towers shooting up on Montagu island, and trying to get back to St. Helena. Sure, when you first crawl ashore it looks a disappointing shade of grey-brown. Until The Colour descends.***** Full set. Stars. This is a campaign frame of seabed-churning horror. The navels of the world – the anchor points of reality – the IKEA allen-key holes into the hollow earth – are found on four islands around the south pole. Tampering with any one of them threatens to break the globe right open and spill the worms out. Alas, I’m not up on my Antarctic Space Nazis, and perhaps all of this is old news to [info]princeofcairo, but given the mindshare New Zealand has claimed since the LoTR movies, I’m starting to think Lawsian thoughts about the effervescent power of collective representations. In my Cthulhu-reversed game, where the PCs were a bunch of monsters ditched in the Bermuda Triangle with a faulty saucer and an Antarctic projection map, all the real action happened underwater. But in this game the point might be not to raise the lost continent but to submerge the ones still left stranded above the protecting waves (fighting against the ancient Atlantean defenses, such as spring-loaded urban floodproofing! Your players will hate it when the Sorcerers of Continent Evil pop their megacity up out of the sea like a turkey thermometer) – to deactivate the transmitter that calls the Mi-go miners back or to keep the crazy nationalist powers of the world from accidentally raising R’lyeh in their ever-more desperate searches for rare earths and fossil fuels.

Suddenly I have an end-game for my still yet to develop Sea of O’sr campaign. Wakwak and Zabag.

Perhaps you’re worried that sinking four lost continents won’t be enough of a climax? Here, have 10 vile vortices (because who’s supposed to make do with just one Bermuda triangle?). Does looking at that map make you think that if you kept adding regularly-spaced triangles you could turn the earth into something like a D20? Well actually it’d be a D17… the number of Pokemon types.

* wtf? Unusually slender?
** srsly, wtf? I love the use of the word “province” here. Far from the even larger igneous metropole (ELIM), perhaps. Metamorphic provinces are of course the diasporogenic engines of the World System.
*** not the Cliffs of Insanity, with which my son is currently obsessed. Oh you knew it would happen.
**** is that why they ate him and took his thighbones up on the mountain? Because he’d namesaked them to this toxic-god-unforsaken necklace of rocks? What did they see, from faraway Big Island?
+ OK, a rough square. Which makes me wonder (although not enough to waste time on it), if one can’t draw a lovely Fibonacci spiral linking together all those place – Ponape, Easter Island, Hy-Brazil, Oak Island etc etc, that stubbornly refuse to conform to great circle ley lines, so that they show up on neatly spaced lines like eclipse paths. And take advantage of the fact that the alignments are never quite right.
*****Via bldgblog, again. Also the wonderfully-named Friends of the Pleistocene (nothing to do with Julian May, I think).

The kerosene whale

April 27, 2011 Leave a comment

The kerosene whale is the world’s only source of lamp oil. In addition to the highly sought after, and highly flammable, eponymous oil, it provides source material for a wide variety of waxes, preservatives and mordants. Its baleen is used in fashion, in combs and for magicians’ quills, its jawbones make perfect howdah bows for the larger dinosaurs and its eyes, pickled, can be sold at good prices to alchemists. Unsurprisingly it has all but withdrawn from the shores of civilisation: whaling expeditions must now venture far out into the uncharted Sea of Tar to find their prey.

Only fully mature whales have the huge subcutaneous mixed oil deposits that make hunting profitable. Now that kerosene whales have begun traveling in pods up to a score strong, those adults are protected by juveniles who, lacking the large nose-bulbs of their parents, are confident to attack the ships sent after them, sometimes co-ordinating their strikes to capsize large vessels and drag sailors down to the depths in whirlpools.

Whalemen and sages agree that the whales have changed their behaviour because of human hunting. Most dismiss as paranoid raving the suggestion that they are reacting specifically to the use of live kerosene whales as floating bombs in the recent wars. How, they ask, could the whales know? They are, after all, only monsters.

Update: of course the sages could resolve this problem if only they had City of Iron’s whale speech.

Matrioshka: Moby-Dick, Ahab, Queequeg, Daggoo, Tashtego, Queequeg’s coffin, Ishmael

April 5, 2011 Leave a comment

OK, I’ma put this out there again to get it out of my head: Harry/Voldemort is so obvious that in the book Voldemort’s always already inside Harry. But if you were to rewrite HP from Voldemort’s perspective, a la Wicked, the story would turn out to be Moby Dick, right down to Voldemort’s business, which involves killing people like Harry as a form of routine work.

So here’s the plot synopsis: Voldemort exploits and rends the world as is his wont until in a surprising and ill-fated moment the world resists, and he nearly dies. Years later he obsessively works to conquer this one wrinkle in his otherwise perfect rapacious record. He seeks intelligence of the enemy, he gathers his forces, girds up his body, and confronts again, but he has not adequately understood his place in the drama. Inexplicably again, from his perspective, he fails and dies, condemning all who are with him to endless perdition. Only latecomer Draco Malfoy, meanest of the crew and tutored in humble observation by the bluster of his father, is left to tell the tale. Which he does, with many side discourses on the refreshing vistas presented to young minds by obsessive destruction, the methods of totalitarianism, the majestic power of the werewolf death eaters, the strange and blurry lines between themselves and other monsters, muggles and muggle-friendly wizards, and the uncanny blank blackness of the dementors.

On the flipside, a young whale, marked twice by albinism and scars, is targeted by a strange reaver of the sea, scourge of all whale-kind. Unable to run, he turns and fights the tarred and bannered enemy and miraculously, bizarrely, survives, ingesting in the process the enemy’s leg, which speaks to him ever after of its owner’s hate. He knows from that moment he is marked, and that defense is unknown to his kind against such a foe. He avoids the society of other whales, since he has over him the revenge-genius of the thwarted man. Years later, and after many rumours of the man’s passage, he faces the revenant Ahab and is injured again, but this time he turns on the ship and destroys it, freeing all whale-kind from the tyranny of Ahab’s iron. Moby-Dick, the whale who lived.

Remembering the onion skin logic* of Sandy Petersen’s essay on Call of Cthulhu campaigns, I’m tempted to make a matrioshka of Shadows of Yog-Sothoth or Masks of Nyarlathotep. In each case the denouement scene is the outermost layer: the final mystery is the small beginning – a meeting with an old family friend IIRC.

* Update: from Wikipedia’s CoC page – Sandy Petersen introduced the concept of the Onion Skin: Interlocking layers of information and nested clues that lead the Player Characters from seemingly minor investigations into a missing person to discovering mind-numbingly awful, global conspiracies to destroy the world. …[In] Shadows of Yog-Sothoth… the characters come upon a secret society’s foul plot to destroy mankind, and pursue it first near to home and then in a series of exotic locations.
Sandy says (more or less) that the investigation should start with small occurrences and that each subsequent clue should reveal a larger and more awful mystery, so that at each point of successful resolution the PCs get a strong sense of also getting in deeper over their heads. So that with success comes dread, regarding the next revelation. 

Timor Tom, cloud leviathan

April 4, 2011 4 comments

Most of Matt Kish’s illos are just his own thing.
This
, though, is clearly a monster for an RPG.

Timor Tom, cloud leviathan.
No. Enc: unique
HD: irrelevant. OK fine, 60,000,000.
Move: with the wind, or up to 50mph against it
AC: -2/20. It’s a flying island. It won’t dodge. But it’s covered in yards of crystalline armour. Try crawling into an orifice and see if you find something vulnerable.
Other stats: not very important. Except it’s nearly immune to magical intervention, and spells cannot be used within 100 feet of it.
LOA: 2 miles
Turning circle: 200′
Attacks: brush against – save or die from crushing. Swallow whole: begins new cavern adventure inside the beast. Maybe lightning? From piezo-electric effect when he stresses the crystals on his back? Ooh: breath weapon – save or be displaced 500 feet in a random direction.

Because few people have seen Timor Tom in clear weather, let alone at close quarters, he’s commonly imagined as a rather diaphanous, woolly sort of whale, a playful spirit who calms storms, rather than provoking them. He’s even propitiated during the islanders’ children’s festival as a kind of beneficent guardian spirit.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Tom is hard as rock and mad as hell. But he’ll crumble to table salt if he touches the ground or anything in contact with it, so he’s only a menace to birds, flying characters, and lookouts at mast-heads.

What especially infuriates him is that, being inconveniently large, he can’t do much about creatures on his back, and he’s become home to a tribe of blue-skinned sky-devils. Occasionally they step off him into the clouds, running their errands, and very occasionally he catches them at it, and then it’s a tense time for everyone, but the sky-devils are just about invisible to anyone who only has 3 kinds of cones in their eyes, and Tom falls in that benighted category. Tom hopes one day to befriend a Roc and be rid of the sky-devils forever. So far he hasn’t met one that wanted anything to do with him however. He’s starting to dislike them on principle.

He dreams sometimes about diving into the ocean and drowning the blue men, but he fears that, even if contact with the sea itself is not fatal to him, he might never get airborne again.

Tom can speak many languages, but communicating with him is not easy. He hears messages best if they’re shouted inside his ear-caverns. His voice is painfully loud up close, and from a distance merely sounds like rumbling thunder. He can read Latin and Arabic (but only in decorated early Kufic presentations) fluently.

UPDATE: dammit, swords and dorkery points to a whole raft of Escher I somehow hadn’t seen before, and the very first picture lays this whole conceit bare. I guess I’m just an unconscious parodist of MC.

Another sort of monster

April 4, 2011 1 comment

Timor Tom has me thinking about another skyborne menace. A hardshell giant twice the length of a man, which throws out clamshell claws full of stingers when it closes to attack. If it sinks its barbs into you then you’d better strike it back and hard, or it’ll just hang on with its spiderweb strands all the time you’re running away, until it has you snarled up and tired out – then all its claws will lash you at once. If you do hit it back, on the body or claws, it’ll spill wriggly, crunchy maggots. But to dent its breast and bring it to down to the scavengers on the cold gritty bottom you have to charge it so hard you risk rupturing yourself.

(UPDATE: this is turning into a really interesting little demonstration of the contention that people will comment on commentary but not on content)

Moby Dick is Cthulhu

April 3, 2011 1 comment

So reading Todd Alcott’s musings on Moby-Dick, I was struck for the first time by something that ought to have been obvious to me long ago:

The plot of Moby-Dick is that a crazy, obsessive leader goes “off the res” and gets the men in his care tangled up in a dangerous mission of revenge that can only end in death and ruin.

…this is the narrative structure of the ideal Call of Cthulhu campaign. Moby-Dick calls to people in their dreams. They pursue him through trackless voids, making their own, more or less haphazard, tracks toward him, and then when they meet the eye of revelation they are destroyed.

Also:  Moby-Dick, the great white whale, is alive, natural, unplaceable and unknowable.  Ahab is asking his crew to join him in a mission to know the unknowable.

…which strikes me as a very neat summation of the uncanny nature of many of Lovecraft’s monsters.

Finally, though, there’s the peculiar, ironbound gesellschaft of the Cthulhu party. Which threatens to undo the whole noir/heroic structure of the Cthulhu game. Except: Part of the drama of Moby-Dick is that Ahab isn’t just fulfilling a personal vendetta, it’s that he’s doing it with someone else’s ship and with men who don’t share his sense of outrage and vengeance. So Ahab, like Kurtz, is following his own agenda that isn’t strictly what everyone else came out here for. So the question is, which PC is Ahab? In one sense, since they’re stalking the unknowable, they all are. But which one is the craziest, the most tangential to the proper target? Which one is it that will lead the rest into ruin?