Friday, 14 February 2020

ADVENTURE: Barrow of the Woad Chief (Levels 1-3) (and "Ancestries of the Borderlands")





Another Borderlands adventure, this time one which has been fairly well-tested - The Barrow of the Woad Chief, a low-level dungeon near the "starting town" of Gosswold. The Barrow has a small (3-4 room) tomb area with low-level learning exercises inspired by Skerples, and then two hidden areas - the Den of the Woad Archon, who runs a sacred cave-farm staffed by Sentient Cabbages and bees, and the Water Shrine, the last active Shrine to the Old Water God in Loam Country, with traps, tricks, and treasure. The hidden areas include large roleplay/negotiation opportunities - the "lead" NPCs in those areas, the Woad Archon and Dissurath the Water Elemental, are both open to friendly advances (but there's a lot of money available if you're not friendly!). Click here for the public Drive folder with my Borderlands material.

As a "bonus", find below a list of Ancestries in the Borderlands, most of which I'd like to make into Race-Classes:

The Kind Masters – Lords of dream and nightmare, in flowing cloaks of autumn leaves, iceshard dresses, flowerpetal masks. Even their kindness may seem cruelty to us. Once, they ruled every deep place in our world; now, they cannot even stay long in the Borderlands, and their great home realm is half-palace, half-prison for them. They intend to rectify that, though, never you worry.

The Book People – Living humanoid books. Their body flows with moving word in inks and fonts unique to the individual, and their skin is like a writing material to the touch; this forms their caste group (e.g. papyrus, vellum). Each one is an expert on topics written upon them in the process of birth. Often find employment as museum curators, antiquarians, or booksellers. The Establishment Book People don't care what is written in a book, and happily accept competing claims as equal truth, given that keeps the peace; their objection is to interlocution or debate. Upstarts believe in a meaningful development of knowledge and enquiry into what is true, but cannot agree on a framework to do so.

The Arbiters of Necessity, aka the Tumour-Men – Magically created by a Kind Master of great power. Corpulent tumour-slug-people. They recognize the only way to cure the Borderlands of its ills is via its destruction and dissolution into pure chaos. However, they also recognize that may take time – and they are free to enjoy its benefits in the meantimes. They are often puissant warriors or wizards.

Fungal Artisans - The Artisans are in fact only one group within a wider race of technicoloured mushroom-people, but outsiders name the whole Ancestry for them. They are usually nomads, seeking sustenance from decay as they travel. Sometimes these bands go wild and seek to create new dead matter from whatever is nearby. The Artisans make startling art out of dead matter, transforming it into bizarre, innovative sculptures and paintings - their most skilled members can even create animate constructs.

Flower Paladins - A strange species of sentient and mobile plant, who communicate entirely via scent and changing the colour of their petals. In winter they hibernate, their petals shrivelling and their disseminate minds slowing. In spring, they ride out under their great rose-bud banner to right what they perceive to be wrongs. The basis on which they identify these is unclear, and sometimes their actions can seem quite destructive to those in their path. Bizarrely, a few exhibit powers similar to those of divinely-supported adventurers. Some have made close alliances with Brocks.

Brocks – Badgerfolk, the Brocks are savage warriors and pensive philosophers. They were not originally from Faery, but from another place; they have retained their ancient ways in the Borderlands.

Brownies – Tinkering fae, known for their experiments in clockwork and gunpowder. A whole ancestry of obsessives, little known for their empathy, though greatly respectful of the effort and craft of others. Their technology is the most “advanced” the Borderlands will permit to function.

Pixies – Arrogant, magically talented, artistic, inquisitive, flight capable, born to rule, tiny. No-one can explain why the Kind Masters let the Pixies survive, especially given the fact that every recorded rebellion against the rule of the Kind Masters has been led by Pixies. Nor can anyone explain how the Pixies proliferate, given the fact that all known members are (apparently) female.

Gitsies – Like pixies, but gits. Their awkwardness and mischievousness is unbounded. They enjoy being pranked if it's done well, though, and will negotiate. Sometimes get it into their head to form bandit gangs, more for banter than for wealth or sustenance.

Dervishes – An Ancestry from a distant corner of the Borderlands, Dervishes are living man-sized tornados of wind and sand. Their ability to apparently dissolve themselves makes them cunning thieves, and their speed is famous.


Merrow – Marine fae, resembling both fish and humans in a disturbingly compelling way, able to breathe both in air and water. They are emotionally unexpressive, except in their underwater architecture – each head of a Merfolk household designs and builds their own home, expressing their worldview and passions through it. Many of their kingdoms and holdings remain loyal to the Kind Masters.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

ADVENTURE: The Monastery of the Chuckle Brethren (Levels 1-2) (and "Dungeons of Loam Country")



Link here to the Google Drive containing my (free!) adventures and surrounding setting material. This is the first I'm putting up, though it's actually the least tested, because my playtest groups haven't gone for it. It's a slightly anarchic mix of silly traps, illusions, and mobile combats - it's chiefly a "hostile environment" dungeon, though not entirely. Heavy on the humour (too heavy for some people). See below for a precis if desired, or just read the doc.

It's set in my own setting, The Borderlands (Elidor+Narnia+80s-90s British Kids TV). So, as a bonus, here is a list of the dungeons of "Loam Country", the great area of black earth and wilderness between Gosswold (classic starting town) and the City of Quinces (a great city set in the branches of a giant rhododendron). Two of these dungeons are fully written up, one is fully planned, and one (very big one) is being written now.

The Monastery of the Chuckle Brethren - The “Chuckle Brethren” are an order of Gitsie monks who pose as bandits on the roads of the Loam Country, so as to attract the attention of adventurers to come and test out their monastery’s assorted “pranks”. There are other mysteries to discover there, too. [Levels 1-2, 16 rooms]

The Barrow of the Woad Chief: A large ancient barrow just outside the Gosswold’s town limits. Blue light is said to issue forth on cloudy nights, and local boys claim that there are secret tunnels inside. It hides a secret annexe where an Archon of the Old Water God produces goods to offer to the godling, and a sublevel which is a still-consecrated Shrine of the Old Water God. [Levels 1-3, 23 rooms]

The Tree Village Hideaway of Rollo Hatt the Bandit Prince – A picturesque village set amongst the branches of great trees and forest glades, prime territory for a band of jovial folk heroes. Unfortunately, it is instead ruled by Rollo Hatt, the vicious and pun-obsessed arch-bandit of Loam Country. [Levels 1-3, 25 rooms]

The Cold Flood – A frozen lake riddled by a great network of tunnels and ice caverns leading down to an unfrozen underground sea inhabited by Merrow loyal to the Kind Masters. The caverns include one formerly consecrated as a temple to the Old Water God. [Levels 2-9, approx. 150 rooms/areas]

The Great Carpet - On a steep hill stands a simple building, reminiscent of a temple, with a marble base and columns supporting an arched roof. Inside there is only one thing - a broad, richly decorated, finely woven carpet. If you step on to it, you discover its true nature. The scenes depicted come to life around you - you have entered into one of many epic poems so depicted, which you must travel through to escape the Carpet. [Levels 2-8, approx. 100 rooms]

Lost Elariel - A panoply of white spires and stained glass in the midst of a ruined town, this was once the summer palace of the Lady Shimmersong, a Kind Master of artistic talent and surprising empathy. She disappeared from the Borderlands even before the other Kind Masters; why remains a mystery. The answer may be inside – along with, by repute, her great treasure. [Levels 4-7, approx. 25 rooms]

The Flying Garden of the Silken Archmage - A great rock floats through the air. Roots trail from its underside. On the top are a vast array of gardens and mini-palaces - the abode of the Silken Archmage, a silk-printed Book Person of great arcane power. He is indifferent to the plight of those below his flying palace, largely seeing the world beneath as a resource for his experiments (this sometimes goes down badly). His gardens are full of illusions to beguile interlopers, as well as stowaways, whose friendship or enmity might be earned by adventurers. [Levels 4-10, approx. 80 areas]

The Sacred Workshop of Pimbob Buttersnap - The abandoned workshop/temple of the Brownie master-artificer Pimbob Buttersnap. It is full of funky, not entirely safe gadgetry, some interlopers, and the natural effects of decades of abandonment. [Levels 6-10, approx. 60 rooms]

The Waterfall Portal – Formerly a shrine to the Old Water God set behind a secluded waterfall and lake, now the lair of cultists loyal to the Kind Master Sir Jack Bloodhair. There is a portal to Sir Jack’s castle in the High Borderlands, accessible via blood sacrifice of a sentient creature. The cultists operate an imitation Wyld Hunt to procure offerings for their liege. [Levels 7-8, approx. 12 rooms]

The Sky Chapel РAn isolated chapel dedicated to the Sky Lord and ministered to by Frere Barth̩lemy, the Sky Chapel is both a place of safety and rest in Loam Country, and the seal on an extra-dimensional rift imprisoning a presence defined by abstract philosophy, and obsessed by the prospect of absorbing others into itself. [Levels 8-10, approx 20 rooms]

Thursday, 12 December 2019

REVIEW: A Thousand Thousand Islands #1-4


“A Thousand Thousand Islands” is a set of 4 ‘zines and 2 topic-adjacent booklet; in the words of the creators, it “a series of fantasy settings, designed for use with tabletop RPGs, inspired by the material cultures, lived stories, and mythistories of Southeast Asia.” With the 3rd and 4th issues of the zine now out, the four core booklets total something like 156 pages with 2 detached foldouts. This is equivalent to a pretty generous setting book, and so seems worthy of a review along those lines. I can give you the headline judgement by saying that – as a setting book – this could well be a highly worthwhile investment for your campaign, presuming you like the Southeast Asian flavour and are willing to do the necessary work to translate this to the table.

Each of the four ‘zine issues covers a different sub-setting in the Thousand Thousand Islands (Is the setting actually made up of islands? It’s plain not every sub-setting is its own island). These all have evocative names: “Mr-Kr-Gr, The Death-Rolled Kingdom”, “Kraching”, “Upper Heling, The Forest Beloved By Time”, and “Andjang, The Queen on Dog Mountain”.

I’ll talk a little about each of them below, but let me sum up the shared strengths and weaknesses. They are all fantastic grist for the mill; they are absorbing to read, and therefore great for the DM at the level of spurring the imagination. Each begins with a title page describing how you arrive at the locale. Mr-Kr-Gr, for instance, begins thus: “FIVE DAYS BY BOAT, UPRIVER. You come to a wide lake, watched by limestone cliffs. Shapes lurk in the water. Shapes wait up ahead.” The flow of pages from there in each issue tend to go from the fringes of the setting into its heart, thereby mimicking a travelogue. This is immersive – and for all of our justified snottiness at overwritten 1990s setting books privileging depth over usability, immersion is important for the DM, too.

This brings up the second shared strength: the art by Munkao. Each title page is faced by a beautiful line drawing depicting the scene. The art throughout the booklets – and it is copious – is magnificent. Munkao is undoubtedly one of the best artists in the “OSR” – probably top 3 or 5 for me. The magnificent blend of almost photographic realism and splendid imagination, touched with an ethereal quality by being uncoloured, suits the setting and communicates the vision. The art in these booklets is absolutely an equal partner with the writing (which has its weaknesses; see below).

The final shared strength I want to focus on is in the evocative nature of the writing. Zedeck writes in a manner that is both terse and dream-like, and it nearly always works. He writes of a pair of cats in a cat-revering culture:
JYOTI AND JOVIN, DARLINGS
Pale ginger tabbies. Everybody who sees them stops and fawns, ‘Oh, Jyoti, Jovin, where have you been?”

The pair went missing for a month. Agents of the Retractable Claw, back from murdering a Bambung prince.
You see? So much contained in so few words. We see the human-feline relationship here, but we also see the magical nature of the cats in this place. We can begin to imagine how they will mess with our PCs, how they might be enemies or allies (even employers) as needs dictate, how they present themselves to the world. The writing is rich in its density.

That leads to the main – really, only – flaw I’d ascribe to the series. It’s not a small flaw, either. The ‘zines are largely made up of quirky, terse description (usually of NPCs), and aforementioned copious amounts of art. Whilst these two are very helpful for immersion, neither is automatically “gameable”/”useable”. In the description of the tabbies I quoted above, the atmosphere is rich, but the table-ready content is minimal – how might the PCs cross them? Who might their next target be? There are wonderful random tables (e.g. the d20 Magic Weapons of Andjang table in that issue) which can definitely find use in prep or at the table; the d10 table in Mr-Kr-Gr of the powers of different demon idols could be integrated into a random encounter table, for instance. Issues #3 and #4 add table-usable foldouts, which is a big improvement.

But the problem is endemic. The issue is not that the ‘zines are statless – they are – but that the indirect, evocative text is itself the barrier. It means that turning this into a campaign setting will require plenty of DM work – more than in comparable ‘zines. Of course Zedeck and Munkao aren’t trying to pretend they’re offering a complete campaign that just needs players, but it’s worth bearing in mind that these ‘zines really only provide a substratum on which you must build. It’s not that, say, Echoes from Fomalhaut or Wormskin do not require work – if nothing else, ‘zines always provide settings with gaps, due to their serial nature and limited space. But Echoes and Wormskin, after four issues, provided much more table-ready material. This is where the generous ladles of art come in – the art uses the space that in other ‘zines might go to detailing out scenarios and locations ready for table use. This is an intentional decision, and not entirely unsuccessful, but it must be borne in mind by the prospective buyer. If you want to run A Thousand Thousand Islands, and not just enjoy the luxuriant writing and art, you will need to put in a disproportionate amount of work.

What of the individual issues, then?

#1 Mr-Kr-Gr – The Death-Rolled Kingdom depicts a kingdom ruled by sentient crocodiles, though largely peopled by humans (there is a bear-person ambassador and a half-sword/half-man, though!). There are some real strengths in this one: a 2d6 random encounter table, the four pages of “Forest Goods” (great for caravans, fetch quests, etc), the general concept of sentient crocodilians who aren’t also humanoids. On the other hand, there’s little in the way of developed adventure ideas – here the writing style strikes. Three NPCs – Gr-Rm-Dr, Tohey, and Mahanat San Orm – have something approaching a standard hook, and other NPCs have something that can be worked into a hook, but that’s it.

#2 Kraching is about a land directed by its human/feline god Auw. Lots of creepy sentient cats, some cool NPCs, probably not quite as interesting a *setting* as Mr-Kr-Gr. There is, again, a useful craft goods section and a forest encounter table. The chief improvement in this issue is the direct nature of some of the “hooks”. For example: “Neha [a buffalo-woman who has lost her counting-spirit servant...which is awesome] offers a steep discount for Ari’s safe return. A bay cat stole him. It will roll him off a cliff, hoping to smash his cage.” That’s directly usable and the situation is set up. Of course there’s work to do – but there’s an imaginative leap made here that makes it even easier for me as a DM to use this.

#3 Upper Heleng – The Forest Beloved By Time is probably the most compelling of these in terms of the setting itself. It’s a strange philosophy-is-reality dreamscapey place. People turn into animals, people go through the “time” of different animal gods which informs their behaviour/purpose/etc, the oldest god (the Leech, the taker of memory) has spawn who suck not your blood but things from a d20 table including your gender, a cherished memory, your eyes. The NPC/quest hook stuff is a bit more indirect again, but there is some wonderful interplay that develops as you read it as the DM – it gets your brainjuice flowing. So a village on the random village generator is being stalked by a former villager now in “the time of the tiger”. Later an NPC is described who’s in the time of the tiger who you might meet in the forest, who might offer to be your guide. He wants to kill his old village-mates...oh, and the next NPC described is this guy’s brother, who’s basically the ace-shot-gone-drunk-and-depressed type. Maybe there’s a story here...This issue also has good craft goods (including perma-staining fluorescent fruit juice) and the most directly gamable thing in any issue, the foldout “map” which you die-drop on to determine which locations are present on any one day and how they are connected. Probably the best issue for theme.

#4 Andjang – The Queen on Dog Mountain is about a peaceful land ruled vampiric superpowered ruling family drawing a blood tithe, replete with living rattan puppets and magical eye tattoos. The theme is good on the whole, but the real thing about this issue is that there is a RUMOUR TABLE. And a MAGIC WEAPONS TABLE. And a detailed pseudo-dungeon with a foldout map (the royal palace). In sheer table-use terms, this is probably the best issue. The theme doesn’t excite me personally quite so much, but so much of this issue is readily translatable to your actual game. The “dungeon”, it should be said, isn’t really developed as a mapped environment ready for immediate table use as a normal dungeon. Nonetheless, it’s still worthwhile.

These are worthwhile ‘zines. I commend them to you. But let me state a few requirements on the DM who wants to run this as a campaign setting. You will need to stat everything. The form this takes will not always be obvious. You will usually need to create a meaningful rumour table. You will need to translate many hinted “quest hooks” into player-facing information. You will need to map things in many cases. There is no complete dungeon environment or point-crawl or anything similar. Factions are sketched in some cases but never – even in Andjang, where factions are most detailed – in any depth. These ‘zines are an inspiration and an imaginative toolkit, not ordinary setting and adventure modules – but what an inspiration they are.

Buy here: https://itch.io/t/570165/a-thousand-thousand-islands-fantasy-tabletop-rpg-zines-inspired-by-southeast-asia

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Saving Spelljammer


So in 1989 TSR – then-publisher of D&D – released their first “weird” setting for 2nd Edition AD&D. It was a setting that linked their three existing “full” settings (Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms). It was a science fantasy setting – SET IN SPACE. It had some marvellous new monsters and concepts for settings. It was called Spelljammer.

It was kinda lame.

I should qualify that. Let's say you get the Spelljammer boxed set, the original release. There's loads of great stuff in it, and it looks very promising. Full-colour ship data cards! Paper miniatures with stands to allow you to simulate space combat on the board! Two books and two full-colour maps of a the iconic “Spelljammer” and a typical asteroid spaceport!

                                                             And cool art like this by Brom!

The writing by Jeff Grubb isn't bad, either, if a little hyper-technical in that 2nd Edition house style. The ships and their datacards are great. There's some good but short adventure seeds to get your “groundlings” into space, and perfectly reasonable rules for travelling in both “Wildspace” (the solar system within a specific Crystal Sphere) and the “Phlogiston” (the Ptolemaic substance between the crystal spheres hanging in the heavens). They're maybe heavier than I go for, but that's fine. There's a few cool monsters/races in one of the books.

But that's kinda it. The setting information (beyond some overwritten high-angle stuff on the nature of civilization in space) is very sparse. There are minute gazeteers of the three main “systems” (Greyspace, Krynnspace, Realmspace), with each planet within each of those systems getting three or four generally bland paragraphs. The Rock of Bral, the asteroid which provides a perfect “starting” spaceport once your guys are in space, gets three pages. There's virtually nothing on the Spelljammer itself. There's similarly little on structuring and running a campaign in space.

The other three boxsets that came over the next few years were of mixed use – the one on the eponymous Spelljammer is considered pretty bland, there's a decent one on space combat, the campaign boxset gets startlingly mixed reviews. A few of the individual books were pretty good depending on what you wanted – SJR1 Lost Ships has been called “the third book that should have been in the first boxset”, based on its wealth of interesting encounters and locations, whilst SJA2 Skulls and Crossbows similarly gives a lot of adventure ideas. The three setting books for the three core systems, and the one for the Rock of Bral, are useful if you're running in those settings.

You probably get the idea. Missed opportunity writ large. It took til Planescape came out, 6 years later, for D&D to have its “iconic weird setting”.

But Spelljammer is worth saving. It's a setting about wizards using their brainmagicjuice to fly butterfly- & squid-shaped ships through spacelanes made of magical oil, inhabited by spider-people slavers and star dragons. I'm sure plenty of individual DMs have salvaged it for themselves before; this is the start of my attempt. It's an attempt which emphasizes the “OSR” elements of Spelljammer.

What is Spelljammer, fundamentally, about? Well it's partly about cool ships; certainly a lot of the published material emphasized galactic trade and high politics; but fundamentally, it's surely about exploration and discovery (in a cool magical ship!). I think it's like a lot of D&D in that way, especially OSR D&D. You fly around going to weird new places, which may well be full of traps and monsters and treasures. You find strange Ancestries with complex objectives, which you can help or hinder. In many ways, the key distinctives are that it's a 3-D Island Crawl, and that it's got Science Fantasy elements. That's what should make the setting feel different. I'll expand on those a little, and then add a few more key categories and concepts to my conception of the setting.

3-D Island Crawl
Think of Skerples' (http://coinsandscrolls.blogspot.com) island crawl. There's cool locations spread across your hexcrawl, with seas and attendant dangers in-between. Think of Ben L's (http://maziriansgarden.blogspot.com) Zyan Below Inverted Junglecrawl – you can move vertically as well as horizontally on this hexcrawl. I've done this 3-D hex-mapping myself a little, for my Out of the Abyss campaign. That's what the Spelljammer universe is – both within a crystal sphere, and between them, is a 3-D map your player travel around. In so much as the game is one about exploration, functional mapping (hexcrawl, big pointcrawl, whatever) is vital. Your players have to be able to make choices between different targets, and “travel costs” have to be paid to make that choice meaningful.

Another feature of this being an “Island Crawl” is that it's arguably more exploration-focussed than most other settings, or should be. Of course, any game can be exploration-focussed, but when you're on the high seas, the sense of adventurous discovery may well be the primary emotional resonance of the game. So travel between planets, or between spheres, should be hazardous, but rewarding – each location should be fresh, and distinct from other places the players have been. The nested argument should be that each location should be more distinct from each other than in a landcrawl. Dolmenwood or Slumbering Ursine Dunes are obviously very fresh and vibrant settings, without much sense of replication between hexes/points – but there's a thematic similarity between locations within them. That's a softer requirement in Spelljammer. It's legitimate for one world to be the high/epic-fantasy Forgotten Realms and another to be the picaresque, slightly grubby Hill Cantons.

Finally, consider the relationship between “Crystal Spheres” (semi-sealed solar systems) – think of them in terms of oceanology. The individual Crystal Sphere has many islands or continents dotted around an interior sea, like the Caribbean or Mediterranean. Between the Crystal Spheres is the Phlogiston – the dangerous high seas! This both gives a particular “feel” to each type of ocean-terrain, but also informs potential factional relationships. It should be complex for one sphere to major influence or dominate another sphere. The massive web of empires and wars presented in the books doesn't work for me; they clog up the “map”, and make space seem a lot smaller than it should.

Science Fantasy
One element that links subsidiary locations, and is the broader texture of the setting, is that it has pseudo-science at the core – magi-tech is basically how you get around. It's very much fantastic, though, rather than speculative – magically-talented characters give up their spells for a day to pilot the ship, the ships themselves are all sorts of implausible but cool designs, and so forth.

This should certainly influence many of the nodes or hexes the characters explore. One planet could be a giant air bubble with hundreds of floating asteroids within it, inhabited by “Polynesian” plant-men paddling flying canoes. Another could be a sentient, largely benign, incredibly complex bacteria that covers a core of solid adamant.

Similarly, this means the technology involved should be fun and a potential attraction for players. Put time into making running a ship simple but genuinely enjoyable (and sometimes challenging). 2nd Edition will normally overload this; make this many percentile rolls, check this table and then this one. A small modular system for this, with a way of integrating NPC crew as hirelings, seems very doable and fun.

The Adventure
For me, a key concept in how I run D&D is emphasizing player agency over the direction of the game – which leads will they follow up on, which dungeons will they explore, and so forth. I don't need, then, to have a series of fully-developed, plot-heavy adventures on hand; but that doesn't mean the players aren't going to go on adventures, and that there isn't a functional mechanical concept of “The Adventure” in play. Once they go to a place, and as they go there, stuff is going to happen. How?

One, have weird locations to travel to that have volatile situations ready for the PCs to mess with – this is basic D&Dcraft, but if we bear in mind that this is a 3-D Island Crawl, the self-contained ready-to-blowness of a location becomes more clearly important.

Two, if you're running a crawly-style exploration game, there need to be random encounter tables to introduce unpredictable danger or opportunity.

Three, you need to be able (via random encounter or organic story development) to create “bottle episodes” - things that can happen just on the individual jamming ship. Some DMs may be happy to make this happen by fiat, though my own taste runs to random or organic. This sort of story adds a third string to the bow – there's the stuff that happens on nodal locations, the stuff that happens to the ship (Goblin pirates attack! The ship gets stuck in space sargasso!), and the stuff that happens on the ship. Crew morale is low because of recent casualties – there's risk of a mutiny. A random encounter they rolled on the Rock of Bral four sessions ago comes to fruit as the stowaway flower-person tries to release their seeds into the Phlogiston. You get the idea.

(Idea in respect of stocking encounter tables or worlds – rob Star Trek and the Star Wars Expanded Universe for ideas and then spin them as fantastically as possible.)

Factions
Even wilderness settings – and Spelljammer encompasses those – can benefit from “factions”, whether an individual wizard in an isolated tower or a city-state government. Factions can serve two purposes in Spelljammer games, I think.

One is political – some players love political games, so let them mess around with the factions you're using on that basis. The gigantic empires Spelljammer canonises aren't to my taste, but I can definitely see Neogi slavers and ancient dragons and planet-hopping archmages being major players.

The other purpose that comes to mind is as sources of regular interaction. It seems natural that Spelljamming parties may engage with the same NPCs less than some types of party – there's so much travel that you might only engage with a set of significant NPCs for a few sessions before leaving them for a year or two of real-time play. Having NPCs that the PCs regularly talk with can give a sense of setting density and investment. These NPCs have their own interests, naturally, and want the PCs to advance them. The elven Priest of the Observer God who travels with the PCs is both full of wisdom and secrets, but also is gathering information – perhaps quite sensitive stuff. The bartender at the place in the Rock of Bral the PCs always go is a loyal friend but also a nascent crimelord who's likely to clash with other local bosses.

What Next?
I think I need to develop a map of a starting sphere and stock it with cool stuff and then throw some players into it to see if the above principles create a more functional Spelljammer setting. That could, if successful, turn into some useful stuff to put up here (I guess either way there might be some cool locales or monsters that could end up here).

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

B/X(ish) Class - The Fungal Artisans, Part 1


A new race-class for my hack of B/X. For those unfamiliar, in “Basic/Expert” D&D and the other Starter Sets of the late 70s and early 80s, there was no distinction between race and class; Clerics and Thieves were humans, whilst Elves were...uh...Elves, and similarly for Dwarves and Halflings. The demihuman race-classes had a bunch of funky gimmicks that set them aside from the human adventuring classes. There are arguments for and against, for sure, but I like relative rules simplicity, love class specialization/character niches a lot, and also approve of customizability within classes, so race-classes fit well with me. 

The class description below includes a few rules mentions relevant to my B/X hack which you can, I'm sure, easily translate – for instance, Saves are modelled after Against The Wicked City/3rd Edition, with Fortitude, Reflex, and Will Saving Throws, affected by Constitution, Dexterity, and Wisdom respectively. The number given in the table is what they must equal or beat on a d20 to pass the given Saving Throw. Similarly, Fungal Artisans are usually better at foraging than other characters, who generically have a 1 in 3 chance of finding food for the day if they travel at 2/3 speed.

The Fungal Artisans are an Ancestry in my nascent Borderlands setting – an in-between zone, between our world and the true Land of Faery. Think Stardust, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Elidor, Neverwhere, Narnia, and the two Labryinths – Jim Henson's and Pan's.

Here is their one-paragraph summary:

“The Artisans are in fact only one group within a wider race of technicoloured mushroom-people, but outsiders name the whole Ancestry for them. They are usually nomads, seeking sustenance from decay as they travel. Sometimes these bands go wild and seek to create new dead matter from whatever is nearby. The Artisans make startling art out of dead matter, transforming it into bizarre, innovative sculptures and paintings - their most skilled members can even create animate constructs.”

Myconids, by Hector Ortiz

A player choosing to play a Fungal Artisan may either choose to play as a member of the Artisan caste itself, or as one of the forager-warrior caste. Twoclass features are shared by both castes:

Fungal Feeding: Fungal Artisans consume decayed organic matter for sustenance – rotten wood and meat, for instance. Few other Ancestries have the tolerance or digestive tract to handle the ordinary food of these mushroom-men. Such matter can usually easily be bought as a Rations-equivalent in settlements at 50% of the ordinary price. Whilst foraging in any suitable environment, the Fungal Artisan increases their chance of finding sustenance for the day by 1 in 3 – so in a normal environment, they have a 2 in 3 chance of finding sustenance when travelling slowly enough to forage.

Telepathic Spores: Fungal Artisans cannot speak, but rather communicate via telepathy. Any Fungal Artisan can always communicate telepathically with any other Fungal Artisan within 100-feet. They may also use telepathic spores to allow them to communicate telepathically with up to 6 other individuals at any one time. This telepathy similarly has a 100-foot range. If they are connected to six non-Artisan people already and want to connect to a new person (via infecting them with benign spores!), they must drop their connection to one of the pre-existing telepathic partners. Any new telepathic partner must be within 30-feet for the spores to be effective. Anyone seeded with such spores is seeded permanently, or until the connection is dropped by the Artisan, or if Cure Disease is used upon them.

Artisan Caste
The Artisan-caste class table is as follows (they are capped at 10th level):
Level
XP
HP
FORT Save
REF Save
WILL Save
Inspiration Points Per Day
1
0
1d6
12
16
13
2
2
1750
2d6
12
16
13
3
3
1500
3d6
12
16
13
4
4
7500
4d6
12
16
13
5
5
14000
5d6
10
14
11
6
6
28000
6d6
10
14
11
7
7
56000
7d6
10
14
11
8
8
112000
8d6
10
14
11
9
9
224000
9d6
8
12
9
10
10
336000
9d6+2
8
12
9
11

To Hit Bonus: +1 to Melee or Missile Attacks.

Mycological Artforms
Artisans utilise their Inspiration Points to convert dead matter into art – a form of material transmutation beyond the dreams of alchemists. They also complete these great works in speeds beyond even the most efficient human craftsmen.

At 1st Level, choose an Artform from the list below at Tier 1. At each subsequent level, choose either to advance an existing Artform up one Tier, or, if there is a teacher available (either another Fungal Artisan, or a supremely skilled artist of another Ancestry), gain a new Artform.

The five Artforms are:
Sculpture: Beginning with the creation of lifelike statues and the like, this Artform can progress to the creation of semi-sentient constructs. It can also be used for the creation of relatively simple tools and weapons.

Painting: This Artform is used both for fine art painting, but also for disguises and armour.

Architecture: More than a form of Sculpture, this Artform enables – with time, effort, and materiel – the creation of buildings, with masters able to create natural features and even wonderworks such as floating palaces.

Moving Pictures: A relatively new Artform, this allows the Artisan to depict moving but insubstantial images – perhaps via some stylized form like sand painting, or perhaps in a very realistic fashion. Advancement in this allows the Artisan to make the pictures more complex and interactive.

Chemistry: With practice, this Artform progresses from relatively simple functions such as the purification of water or the slow change of a wooden door into sludge all the way up to the creation of healing reagents and dark poisons.

Each of these Artforms has multiple Tiers, which require the expenditure of different amounts of Inspiration Points (more IPs for higher tiers)

Forager-Warrior Caste
The Forager-Warrior is capped at 10th Level.
Level
XP
HP
FORT Save
REF Save
WILL Save
1
0
1d8
14
15
14
2
2000
2d8
14
15
14
3
4000
3d8
14
15
14
4
8000
4d8
11
13
13
5
16000
5d8
11
13
13
6
32000
6d8
11
13
13
7
64000
7d8
9
9
11
8
128000
8d8
9
9
11
9
256000
9d8
9
9
11
10
384000
9d8+3
7
7
9

To Hit Bonus: +2 to Melee Attacks, +1 to Missile Attacks.

Psychotropic Spores: Once per day per level, the Forager-Warrior may target a non-fungal, non-undead creature within 20-feet. That target must make a Fortitude Save or be affected as per the spell Sleep (though strictly the target is conscious but catatonic). At 7th Level, the Forager-Warrior may, once per day instead of using a Sleep spore, instead force its target to make a Will Save or be affected as per the spell Confusion.


Next Time: Detailed rules for Artforms.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

On Character Backstory and Character Death


There's a contradiction at the heart of the implied “game” at the heart of Fifth Edition. This is an edition greatly influenced by the old school – two major OSR figures are consultants on it, after all. There's an adventure that's an arguably superior reboot of Tomb of Horrors. There's these three pillars of gameplay. Dungeon situations can be solved in many ways. Smart play is rewarded; without it, your character may die.

This is also the edition where the pretty good Starter Set immediately railroads the party into some bland roadside encounter, the edition that fastforwards the first two levels where characters are genuinely fragile, the edition where in the Tomb of Horrors III adventure you're told to give players a way out of hard random encounters right after being told that random encounters shouldn't be levelled for difficulty.

Not all of Fifth's weaknesses have to do with the tension I'm going to identify, just as not all of its strengths comes from Mike Mearls' OSR roots. But a lot of the problem comes down to this:

Your new character matters too much.

You've written a couple of pages of backstory. You've done a bunch of character-build nonsense, picked the right spells, the whole shebang. You've legitimately invested in the process of even getting to the table. Your character is awesome, and they have a great quest.

It would genuinely suck if they died during Session 3, when falling into a whirlpool trap activated by a Twig Blight.

On the other hand, if that happens to some guy you rolled up a couple sessions ago, maybe it's just funny, or a useful learning experience about the combat behaviour of these little plant dudes.

Fifth Edition nobly attempts to meet two assumptions of play here – the epic hero of storied past, and the nobody who rises to be somebody through their adventures. It fails in part. This is somewhat genetic – there's something bred in the bone as far back as First Edition, and certainly Vampire the Masquerade has had a significant impact. But the buck stops here. The implicit assumptions of Fifth, and even some of the mechanics, create an impossible tension. Characters dying is a waste.

But what if the real, active possibility of character death – round every corner, at every potentially trapped door – made everything else sweeter? Every victory, every escape from catastrophe, every friend made and enemy defeated, all made more ecstatic by the fact that even at 5th Level, you can just straight up die from fighting the wrong monster at the wrong time. To quote Shadowlands, “the pain now is part of the happiness then – that's the deal”. Life and death are interlinked.

Take this example of an old school DM talking about a character death: http://maziriansgarden.blogspot.com/2017/06/sir-tresken-vigilant-rest-in-power.html. Now bear in mind Sir Tresken will likely have been rolled up pretty quickly, with little optimization. A character was needed for a session, and lo, one emerged. One day, Sir Tresken died. Others had died before, but hadn't received such an obituary from the DM. I imagine some of them “get capped pretty quick” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bR3T1eThJU), too. After all, at first glance, in the old-school game, “the king stay the king”.At first glance.

But what about Sir Tresken?

Sir Tresken also won the Twin Saddle of Vyanir, fashioned by Saint Garanax, the founder of his order, the dread Storm Riders. Garanax had used it to break the first of the war crows, leading them from the inverted White Jungle to the waking world. Sir Tresken followed in Saint Garanax's footsteps. Each traveled to Wishery from Rastingdrung through a shimmering door. Each served the same two mistresses. In the waking world, Tresken was the sworn servant of the Chatelaine of Storms, the witch queen from whom he drew his powers. But in Wishery, the Petal Blade bound him to the memory of the Lady Shirishanu, legendary poet-warrior paramour of the last of the Incandescent Kings. Had he lived longer Sir Tresken too would have broken wild crows and been the stuff of fairy tales.
At that same moment, in Wishery, as Tresken's life blood poured from a mortal wound onto the dueling ground, the Petal Blade gave a keening cry, a wave of raw grief that burst upon all at the pagodas of the hanging merchants. Fat Malichar burst instantly into tears, and even Nekalimon who hoped against hope that Tresken would be slain felt so sickened that he spilled the precious moonstones he was counting into the chasm below. The Petal Blade grieved on behalf of its mistress, and all of Zyan, for the waning of the hope that had begun to dawn in that hopeless place.

Sir Tresken died in the forty first session of our campaign. May he rest in power.”

Sir Tresken earned every moment of that. Forty-one sessions of ruthless, cutthroat play. That chump barbarian who died two sessions in, even the magic-user who went down after nine sessions – sure, they might have been fun, but Sir Treskens had created a legend. Not based on his backstory. Just based on – well – his story. And that makes his death tragic.

But what if he had survived? Well, keep playing, and you'll find a character like Sir Tresken.

That's the issue with a gameplay style which emphasizes pre-game prep – not just pages of backstory writing, but, and perhaps this is more to the point, one which also rewards serious pre-game statistical planning. The game becomes about efficiently utilising the optimised device, or experiencing the ramifications of the backstory, not about exploring a world and creating a story. It becomes actively obnoxious to let characters die – the characters, and the work put into them by the player, becomes the point of the game, rather than the gameplay itself. The effort you've put into backstory and character builds means it seems less fun for the DM to let your character die.

I'm not saying that's bad wrong fun. You do you. But I suspect it's not the best use of an engine like D&D's.

D&D suits emergent backstory best, is my contention. It's a game about exploration and discovery as much as it's a game about killing stuff. At its best, it's also a pretty simple game, where rolling up a character is quick and no-fuss. Given that, why not discover your character along the way, too? Again – I'm not saying that it can't be fun for the DM to create elaborate interlacing plot-threads based on your complex backstory. I'm saying it might be funner to think up a sentence summarising your guy or gal and then crash them into the world. See whether they become worthy of a backstory or not. Do you know what the backstory they'll get is? The game you actually play.

Maybe that backstory is you being turned into a tapestry by a Fungal Artisan two sessions in. But maybe it'll be like Sir Tresken, and a living sword will wail your death across the land, causing even your enemies to weep.

And maybe your tale will be greater yet.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The Great Valley: Gronk's Crossroads and Rumour Table


Alongside developing Talon's Height (I now have two tables playing it, have run a one-shot out of it, and a friend has run a two-shot out of it), I've begun writing up a slightly less traditional setting - the Great Valley. This is influenced by an odd mix of things - Vance, the Exalted RPG, faery myths, the sport of cricket, south-eastern England. Distinctive races (which I'll be designing race-classes for) are the Pigman and the Bombid/Beefolk.

This is the outline of the "starting town", Gronk's Crossroads, along with a rumour table for use there. Tell me what you think.

Gronk's Crossroads
A village in the Great Valley has grown up around a waystation run by the pigman Gronk, who serves as an unofficial and thoroughly reluctant mayor. It is in the midst of a strange landscape, dotted with mysterious ruins. It has recently developed into a major cricket venue. Gronk's Crossroads has a population of around 300, including the nearby farms.

The Waystation
An inn-cum-general store run by the pigman Gronk (2nd Level Pigman, grumpy, taciturn, acts resentful of the villagers but is quite protective of them). A bunk can be had here for 2cp a night, whilst a private room is 3sp. Stodgy, filling meals involving suet and cabbage cost 4cp, imported ale costs 2cp a pint, whilst wine is 1sp a bottle. Gronk's decade-spouse recently visited for a month, and left behind 10 manpiglets on her departure. One regular is Gibly (0th Level Magic User, only knows a cantrip to help crops grow, overchatty and boring).

Market “Square”
A rough triangle of dusty ground, local farmers and travelling tinkers sell their wares here. Metal weapons and armour are unavailable, being a monopoly of Mobbs the Smith; however, there is a 2 in 6 chance of shortbows and leather armour being available, and hunting snares and slings are always available. There is a 2 in 10 chance of strange or unusual goods – bezoars, mancatchers, faery fiddles, etc – being available.

The New Smithy
There was no Old Smithy. Mobbs (quiet but amiable human, surprisingly skinny for a smith) lives and works here, producing most ordinary metal goods someone might want to buy, including metal weapons and armour. He also brews his own beer, and serves it from his front rooms some evenings to anyone who visits (mostly his neighbours). He charges 1cp for a pint, which, depending on the batch, either tastes of soggy biscuits or tastes mostly normal but is slightly psychadelic.

The Oval
A great green oval, strongly contrasting the dry scrubby ground around it. A cricket wicket is in the middle. Crossroads Cricket Club (CCC) play here, hosting travelling teams from other places in the Valley and beyond. There are enough locals who play cricket for there to be a match even without visitors – about 30 locals play, and a team is made of 11 players. The club captain is Vimy (arrogant human, tall and blonde, think Disney's Gaston), whilst the groundsman is Philbert (halfling, too short to play, enthusiastic and skilled at groundskeeping).

The Catamite's Tomb
No-one locally knows what a catamite is, and no-one knows how to unlock the puzzle-door, so no-one has been into this ancient building just south of the Crossroads. It is built out of one piece of transluscent light blue stone, cool to the touch even on the hottest summer's day.

The Generic Shrine
Carved into a great grey stone protruding from the earth east of the Waystation, this small underhang is blank and empty except for a plinth, which the inhabitants of the Crossroads leave offerings on or pray at – to whichever God or gods they follow. At any time it is likely to contain 2d6x10sp worth of precious gems, fine spices, hand-crafted ornate candles, and the like; stealing them and getting caught would be a good way to observe how lynch mobs form.

1d20 Rumour Table
1. The Catamite's Tomb is full of the treasure of an ancient wizard, but is full of traps. (Misleadingly True)
2. There are strange animalfolk up at the Golden Mere who are master builders. Underneath the water, though, lurks death. (True)
3. The Generic Shrine was originally dedicated to a trickster god who blesses those who steal from it. (Potentially Fatally Untrue)
4. Though King Chegwin's Gribbles claim the Fort for their own, there are many levels still locked beneath them, where the true masters of the place sleep. (True, though how anyone knows this is a mystery.)
5. The Old Woman loves to forge powerful magical weapons for the heroic-hearted. She welcomes any such seeker at her hut. (True, But Not In The Way You Think)
6. Faeryfolk rule Old Eaves Wood; apparently there's some civil war betwixt them, and they sometimes hire outsiders to aid them in their strange battles. Be careful, as these aren't always solved by combat. (True)
7. Shallow Hall, the seat of Lord Russet, sits next to many barrows of the olden times – full of treasure, but dangerous. (True)
8. The people of Coldmeadow are strange and distant folk, courteous to outsiders, but secretive. They must be hiding something. (They Are!)
9. Gronk slew a wyrm and sold its hide to fund building the Waystation. (True, though it was only a small one, and he doesn't talk about it.)
10. There's money to be made in playing as a club professional in cricket. It's also a good excuse to travel and see the Great Valley. (True)
11. The Longtrees are inhabited by fuzzy, cuddly flying people who dole out honey to the cheerful. (Essentially False)
12. The hedge wizard Gibly pays for herbs, mosses, and fungi from the Golden Mere, Greywallow, the Longtrees, and Old Eaves Wood. (True)
13. The Impossible Tower contains marvellous artefacts of the Olden Times; if only it was easier to get into! (True)
14. The Order of the Old-Delvers are headquartered in their great Monastery-Cathedral. They pay generously for evidence about the olden times, especially relating to religion. (Mostly True, Except They're Not That Generous)
15. There's apparently a village hidden away in the Longtrees where everyone lives to one hundred years old. (There is a village in the Longtrees, but the rest is garbled.)
16. Cedd's Isle is named after a strange monk who lives there, alongside great sentient hermit-crabs. He is a kindly host to travellers, especially seekers of truth about the olden times. (True)
17. Greywallow is dangerous place; the marshes are rife with giant amphibians, and there are robbers hidden there. There are valuable herbs here, however, and rumours of sunken treasure. (True)
18. Lord Russet is a power-hungry madman, and has his greedy eye on adding Coldmeadow and Gronk's Crossroads to his little empire. (Vicious Slander)
19. If you meet a faery, speak courteously about the Kind Masters, and they shall treat you as a friend. (Debatable)
20. You may find great wealth at the Concrete Horror House, but at risk of your sanity. (Painfully True)

ADVENTURE: Barrow of the Woad Chief (Levels 1-3) (and "Ancestries of the Borderlands")

Another Borderlands adventure, this time one which has been fairly well-tested - The Barrow of the Woad Chief, a low-level dungeon near...