Thursday, 30 April 2009

four faces from the ancient gallery

Inspired by Ravyn's post about archetypes on Exchange of Realities. Title from The Doors track "The End" which is on rotation as I write the old World of Darkness Mage game I'm currently running (multi-tasking is one of those things I practice) as well as this blog. If you want writing music, head to Finetune and program your soundtrack for a project.

I'm conscious of employing the following archetypes from time to time; this isn't a confession of guilt or predictability (honestly, if you feel like that, back off a step) but the archetypes interest me - not just because of their apparent incongruence but because it is difficult for any protagonist not to have a feeling about them.
  1. The False Psychic - There is no power. There is a gift for reading people, for getting their trust and leading them into particular routes meeting a particular need (guilt, greed and loneliness are but three instances) which they or a friend can meet. They can cure what ails you for a price and build a illusion. Inevitably, there is a comeuppance and what happens next may be tragic or something even stranger...
    Examples:
    Patrick Jane in Mentalist, Oda Mae Brown in Ghost.

  2. The Heartless Carer - You have looked after your charges and are given responsibility for their health and welfare. There is an order, a routine to be followed - you will follow it regardless of the human cost, compassion just gets in the way of your duties. Why you don't want or need to show an ounce of care may vary - perhaps you're just burnt out or you secretly thrive on your cruelties. In any event, pity those in your tender mercies.
    Examples: Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

  3. The Minor-League Miser - It's theirs. Never mind the fact they don't use it, that they'll probably never use it. That's not the point. They'll never move from saying 'No' unless they get something of greater value in return. Their place in the scheme of things may not be so great yet when it comes to their thing, they will defend their rights with the tenacity of a junkyard dog - sometimes to absurd or tragic levels.
    Examples: George Costanza in Seinfeld, Fagin in Oliver Twist.

  4. The Out of Towner - Some business you don't do locally - if it's dirty enough, an outsider is brought in. Someone noted by a lack of friends and slightly awkward with it. When the time is right they are a different person - lethally competent, situationally aware and focused on the job at hand. Always travelling light, unwilling to engage in long conversation and ready to leave quickly once the job is done, that last exit isn't guaranteed.
    Examples: Nikita from La Femme Nikita, Navajas from Desperado

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

it's nice when people listen...

Wizards have put a quick-start set, Keep on the Shadowfell and the first three levels of Character Builder up for free online. I can't help but get the feeling the blogosphere contributed in it's own way to this sudden shift in WotC policy. Before you all get too excited, it looks like the current policy on PDF publishing won't reverse any time soon. Props to Points of Light for this.

The rest of this post is inspired by a post on Robertson Games about the radio theatre style entertainment that tabletop RPGs can provide. Talk about a bolt from the blue! As I'm late to the party, it would suddenly explain why those podcasts of gaming sessions are popular among some of us - they're tapping into about *cough* sixty to eighty years of oral tradition!

Sound effects can add considerably to atmosphere - for free sound effects, take a look at The Freesound Project, University of Texas Electronic Music Studio, PacDV, Stonewashed and Ljudo. Some of these have Creative Commons tags so use accordingly. There are some very useful downloads to be found at my.voiceacting.co.uk including this.

Finally, courtesy of HeroPress - notification of a fantasy radio drama on BBC Radio 4 called ElvenQuest starring assorted comedy performers (Alastair McGowan, Stephen Mangan) about a novelist and his dog who is drawn into a world with elves, dwarves and monsters to fight Lord Darkness. The dog of course is the prophesied hero. Starts tonight! Will be iPlayered.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

three things: spells for swords

Inspired by Taichara's post about blade spells, it seemed appropriate to add the following spells for those who like swords and sorcery and who don't mind having characters who can use both competently. And as not mentioning 4E is allegedly bad for the new players out there, I thought I'd try my hand using Playwrite's Power Toolkit to make swordmages more fun as they seem to be receiving a lack of love with the exception of Geek's Dream Girl but she's just shameless when it comes to those spellcasting types.

Blade of Black Snow (Swordmage Attack 1)
You bring your weapon to bear and the blade shimmers with black frost; as it is swung black snowflakes trail after like sizzling embers that burn and chill those they touch.
EncounterArcane, Acid, Cold, Weapon
Standard Action                 Melee weapon
Requirement: Heavy or light blade
Target: One creature
Attack: Strength vs. AC
Hit: 2[W] + Strength modifier damage +1d6 acid damage +1d6 cold damage.
Increase damage to 4[W] + Strength modifier + 2d6 acid + 2d6 cold at 21st level.
Miss: Half damage.

Blade of Radiant Sparks
Swordmage Attack 1
You sweep your blade overhead, the edges spit sparks of radiant light and arcs of electricity which lash those enemies foolish enough to come close to you.
DailyArcane, Lightning, Radiant, Weapon
Standard Action                 Close burst 1
Requirement: Blade (light or heavy)
Target: Each creature in burst
Attack: Intelligence vs. Fortitude
Hit: 2d6 + Intelligence modifier damage

Blade of Venomed Darkness
Swordmage Attack 3
You launch a fierce attack as your blade writhes with whispering darkness. When it strikes, your enemy feels a dark venom poisoning it's life-force.
EncounterArcane, Necrotic, Poison, Weapon
Standard Action                 Melee weapon
Target: One creature
Attack: Strength vs. AC
Hit: 3[W] + Intelligence modifier damage and target takes 2 ongoing necrotic and 2 ongoing poison damage (save ends).

Monday, 27 April 2009

recession-proof gaming III: no money, no time, no problem!

What? You need more? Hey, don't you know there's a recession on? Here's 10 things to keep you going while times are lean in case you've already gamed out recession-proof gaming and recession-proof gaming II: the sequel.

System Free


Cartographer's Guild - People making maps with Campaign Cartographer then putting their hard work on the web for your use. High quality, name-checked in Penny Arcade no less and deservedly so.

EpicWords is a campaign forum/wiki/inventory set-up similar to Obsidian Portal. While there is a paid user option, you aren't reading this to hear about it. Simple, effective and low-key; it has no specific programming language requirements.

Gozzy's Dungeon Map Generator - One of my perennial bugbears is the provision of maps for dungeons (I used to be able to lovingly hand-craft maps...) so finding a map generator of this kind of quality makes me very happy; and the output is high quality which makes me happier.

HP Lovecraft Historical Society offer a number of fonts eminently suited to the manufacture of props for Call of Cthulhu (or it's cheaper relative Nemesis) which you may find suitable; some very nice blackletter fonts for those Gothic horror games you keep hearing about too...

RPTools - Java applications to help you roleplay at a distance. Dice, tokens, maps, characters and initiative trackers. All OS agnostic, you can network and game to your heart's content on installation; check the community for FAQs, tips and tricks.

System Specific

For 4E, there appears to be a quietly active community of people outputting free stuff for you to download (some of it in PDF - take note Wizards!) which can enhance your game.

Asmor.com - Why haven't Wizards hired him yet? Seriously??

DragonAvenue offers a selection of character sheets and power cards.

PlayWrite - Has the magnificent CrawlNotes and the 4E Power Toolkit to let you homebrew your own 4E stuff. Here's a thought exercise. How long would it take you to use the 4E Power Toolkit to simulate the 3.X classes & prestige classes in the Complete (Splat) books? And could you release them under GSL before Wizards do? Enquiring minds etc.

Other systems have a different pool to draw on:

Eposic.org has a number of random generators (including a nice batch of Tunnels & Trolls stuff) as well as more generic (FUDGE dice) and system-less tools.

Role-Playing Assistant (RPA) - A veritable Swiss Army application - it's been around a while and I was reminded of it's utility the other day. We're doing well if we forget applications this good...
A character generator for the following systems: AD&D 2nd ed, D&D 3.0 and 3.5, Star Wars (d6 and d20), d20 Modern, Cyberpunk 2020, Alternity, Rolemaster (2nd ed), In Nomine (French) and Dragonball Z (this is beta mode).

It also includes a name generator, spell book generator, monster and encounter generator, weather generator, NPC party generator, dice roller, fractal mapper, DM character summary and D&D3.0 treasure generator. You can also create your own tables and modify outputs as well as generating templates for various uses and export the results by e-mail.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

big damn villains

Sparking off the villain postings by At-Will, Core Mechanic and Mad Brew Labs as well as the Generic Villain series at Exchange of Realities; there are times you need an antagonist who isn't a dark mirror (e.g. Darth Maul) or a pinata-like aggregation of dislikes ready to fly apart with the right strike. Oh no. Such is not for you. You need someone special - demanding attention, who burns their image into the imagination, whose name calls a hardening of eye and clenching of hand on convenient objects.

You need a Big Damn Villain.

A Big Damn Villain (BDV for short) has attributes that lesser villains just don't have due to lack of recognition by their peers (look at Spider-Man II and III vs. Spider-Man), a lack of power or a lack of will. They are iconic; you are in no doubt as to who you're dealing with even if you know almost nothing about them. The gentleman in the picture is Dr. Szell from Marathon Man and he fits our criteria to a tee.

Big Damn Villains have these particular characteristics.

Fear - An element of the BDV is having other characters respond fearfully. Take Voldemort from Harry Potter; everyone is afraid of him because of his deeds, his loyal and secretive followers, his use of evil magics to kill, maim and drive mad yet you don't meet him until Book 4 of a 7 book series. See also Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects whose reputation precedes him even if nobody is quite sure exactly who he is.

You don't even have to be secretive as the previous two examples. You can be in your face like Vlad the Impaler, the Joker, Hannibal Lector or Lord Soth. None of those individuals can be said to have shrunk back from their villainy or been ignored by those around them. As Machiavelli notes, it is better to be feared than loved since:
"...fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails."
Opposition to moral values - The BDV has beliefs opposed to what is good and just and acts on those beliefs in ways which shape the world. The Zhentarim in the Forgotten Realms are a good example. An organised trade cartel who subjugates customers and seeks to recruit them into an oppressive regime that serves an evil god. Did I mention they have evil wizards who ride gryphons and backing from devils as well?

Before spiralling into moral relativity, note medieval definitions of good were different from today but this can work if the morality contrasts with what is normal - an example in Pendragon, there is a scenario where a knight filled with a passionate hate of Saxons draws the player characters into a lucrative raid on a Saxon village during a time of invasion. Yet this knight goes over-the-top. What do the knights do? Do they declare "War is Hell" or try to stop him?

Persuasion - The BDV needs to be able to draw others into their plans. Jigsaw from the Saw films does this by abduction, placing them in deathtraps. Others do it with incentives, offering rewards for dubious behaviour. Arguments and rhetoric can also make ordinary people act in evil ways - Hitler's Germany is an obvious example. Equally Iago from Othello manipulates Othello and his company into self-destruction and hatred of each other.

Other persuasive villains include Preacher Harry in Night of the Hunter and Richard III, whose rise to power combines political rhetoric, smear campaigns and assassination. Keeping with the Shakespearean for a moment, Cassius in Julius Caesar is a tragic manipulator, tempting Brutus into assassination. In Gormenghast, Steerpike manipulates and insinuates his way through the court until he gets within striking reach of the Groan family.

Power - These villains need to be able to shake things up. Power can take a number of forms but the BDV doesn't limit themselves. They can be legitimised by government or may even be the government (the Northfire party in V for Vendetta). They can have the raw power to coerce those around them to comply (e.g. Magneto in the X-Men movies). They may have knowledge that lets them challenge anyone around them (e.g. Lex Luthor).

Commodus in the movie Gladiator has the Roman Empire behind him, having power of life and death over Maximus. In Firefly, the Operative is sanctioned by The Alliance and he chooses to use murder, intimidation and threats of rape in order to find and retrieve River Tam. Another Firefly example previously mentioned here is Adelai Nishka, who tortures Malcolm Reynolds to death and back again just to get some information.

Resolve- So someone asks you to stop. Do you? A shame, considering you've come this far, gathered like-minded individuals to your side, engineered an insidious plan, prepared for the great moment only to back down on the word of a protagonist. Unless your hero is intimately aware about what makes the BDV tick and is sure that such a strategy will work, it's going to be at best a stalling tactic and at worst, give the BDV a really clever idea.

For the Forgotten Realms again, Artemis Entreri, an assassin who is emotionally dead inside; Vito Corleone in The Godfather doesn't shrink from the consequences of his orders, nor does Hans Gruber in Die Hard - it may even be a matter of principle for the villain. Consider Angel Eyes in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly:
"Problem is... once I'm paid, I always see the job through. You know that"

Saturday, 25 April 2009

dark heresy: CCE338

This former agri-world is currently entrenched in an ongoing three-way war between Imperial troops, heretical ex-colonists led by psykers and a ravening Ork army for thirty solar years and shows no sign of slowing down. Ork entrenchment, numbers and resilience make what looks like a routine operation anything but. A series of factors keep the Inquisition from burning this world to cleanse it; an unusually high psyker population on CCE338 amid the colonists; Scholar and Magos curiosity in the colonists and Warp instabilities near the planet meant that a battlefleet would need to deploy on an extensive sojourn to conduct an orbital cleanisng.

The locals were cultured for a feral agri-world and Imperial colonists settled without incident at first. Following an incident involving a localised Warp-breach, the number of psykers among the colonists grew and their desire to isolate themselves from the Imperium grew with it; refusing to send 70% of their population to the Black Ships. There were incidents as Imperial clerics and guardsmen clashed with colonist forces and to one cleric's horror, it appeared some guardsmen were influenced by the psykers or worse, sympathised with their cause. Farms became outposts, trenches were dug and military actions took place.

Then the Orks appeared en masse, the space hulk they'd rode in on landed on a north-west coast and they began to explore in earnest. The last Imperial legate to visit was eaten by Orks who shot her Aquila Lander down; previous delegates found colonists violently unwilling to consign 70% of their population to the Black Ships. A punitive force was sent back to find the colonists who were driven from their settlement by Orks. The unclean beasts were purged but a colonist-led ambush weakened the Imperial forces sufficiently to force a regroup - the Black Ships were sent on their way without additional cargo - they could not be delayed.

The colonists have evolved to become nomadic warriors and psykers, moving from hidden settlements to harry Ork and Imperial alike, playing one off the other; about 80% of them are psykers. None of them have felt the temptation of Chaos yet those who want to capture an Imperial lander are pondering just how they're going to take a space ship without violent, willing allies and the Orks will not be willing to ally with them after all this time - which leaves an option nobody wants to consider and which would likely guarantee Excommunicatus.

The Orks spawn and equip themselves from colonist caches and fallen Imperial outposts - as a perennial threat they have constructed crude tractor-beam towers to pull down dropships for conversion into Roks and bred biomechanical dirigibles called wingsquigs for aerial reconnaisance and troop transport. Ork rocket ships are possibly the next problem for the Imperium to deal with - CCE338 is not a point of strategic significance but the Orks can travel far and fast if they can get hold of a warp engine...

The Imperium sends landers and dropships to secure outposts, launching airstrikes against the Orks while trying to avoid prescient colonist attacks. Adeptus Mechanicus and Assassinorum agents have had some success against the colonists, who have increased vigilance but realise there is only so far that will take you. Travel to CCE338 is a risky process, the immaterium is especially treacherous around this world and the allegiance of Chartist Captains is not always as reliable as you would hope.

Friday, 24 April 2009

torture - not fluffy bunnies

This post is a counter-rant to this one, posted in response to this one. And because I see flames in the future, I'm putting up a picture of Johnny Cash special. It has been argued that the presence of torture in games and stories is disturbing and done for tittilation.

To which I say: No.

The presence of torture in story can be traced long way back - by TV Tropes terms it's older than dirt. Before Hans Christian Andersson and the Brothers Grimm, before Scherezade's 1001 Arabian Nights. Yesterday was St. George's Day (patron saint of England etc. and dragonslayer) who was tortured before being executed for his beliefs, along with so many other martyrs.

There are inevitably real-world parallels and inspirations. Spanish and European inquisitions, the witch hunt and ordeals outlined in the Malleus Malificarium, the courts of the Yellow Emperor and Genghis Khan, trials by ordeal in Saxon and medieval European courts and just about anywhere that humanity has demonstrated it can be inhuman.

In literature you've got Poe's The Pit & The Pendulum, Orwell's 1984, Dumas' The Man in The Iron Mask, C.S. Lewis' The Horse and His Boy and numerous others including A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin where the character of the Tickler is particularly reviled.

In cinema, you've got examples in Braveheart, Casino Royale, Conan the Barbarian, Flash Gordon, Pan's Labyrinth, Rambo II and III, Reservoir Dogs, Spartacus, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, The Matrix (Morpheus' interrogation by Smith)The Passion of the Christ, The Princess Bride, V for Vendetta, adaptations of the previous novels and yes, the Saw films.

In television, torture is also used. 24 has Jack Bauer commiting atrocities on people (is it me or has Dick Cheney got 24 confused with real life?). Alias has numerous examples involving Jack Bristow, the new Battlestar Galactica uses it on both humans and Cylons. Jean-Luc Picard suffers ordeals yet holds out against the Cardassians in Star Trek: Next Generation. Firefly sees Malcolm Reynolds tortured to death and back again by Adelai Nishka, Lost sees Sawyer get tortured by the islanders and Xena, Warrior Princess was crucified by order of Julius Caesar.

Do any of these glorify or glamourise torture? No. Even in the Saw films, Jigsaw's fiendishness is the lashing out of a terminally sick craftsman with a broken moral compass; his apprenticeships are by ordeal, not initiations into justice as he attempts self-justification of his actions.

Are these compelling stories? Probably. You've heard of them, haven't you?

Finally, I have to include a link to Amnesty - because this story isn't over yet...

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

dark heresy: Lachrys

The waterworld Lachrys is one of the breadbaskets of the sector; the presence of seaweed beds and shoals of fish appear to make it an idyllic alternative to other agri-worlds. A lack of surface land and indigenous sentient life did not deter colonists. Plentiful shoals of spikefin (a fish resembling Adeptus lore of tuna) are netted and processed for the Imperium along with the seaweed beds that drift quietly in the oceans.

The spikefin seem to have no natural predators as the only other life lives on the bedrock of Lachrys deep under - crab-like beasts called kharacith about 3 meters tall with pincers capable of breaking carapace and shells capable of resisting chainweapons and great pressure and yet vulnerable to las-fire. Kharacith flesh is a delicacy among the Lachrysians who take advantage of the third dimension while swimming to shoot them with las-weapons.

Lachrysian Kharacith
WS: 45 BS: - S: 50 T: 50 Ag: 33 Int: 5 Per: 33 Fel: 5 Will 25 Wounds: 20
Traits: Blind, Crawler, Darkling, Hulking, Unnatural Senses
Skills: Awareness, Climb, Silent Move
Natural Weapons: Claws (1d10+5 R).
Natural Armour: 4 points (halved against las-weapons).
Threat: Xenos Minoris

The floating dome-ports of Westjonn and Princeport are agreeable places to be stationed and provide an interface between sea and space. Those few scum that live here cluster around the docks for fishing vessels as unskilled labourers. Arbitrators and Guardsmen keep them in line with psyker help in winnowing out dissidents and malingers. Lachrys scum are skilled smugglers and don't mind trading with anyone for a price.

Adepts, clerics and tech-priests work to keep both dome-ports running smoothly, edicts on matter reclaimation keep both ports clean. Though saltwater corrosion is a risk, apprentices to tech-priests and servitors apply blessed chrisms made from spikefin processing to protect their components and machines from peril and the Great Corruptor. The smell can be potent, yet the alternative is far worse.

The deep-sea hive of Kalypsa is a different matter. The great gill-filters pull air out of the water as the mineral wealth of Lachrys enters manufactoria to make mechanical components and holy circuitry. In the deep vaults hexagonal air tunnels sigh and seem to whisper foul desires in the ears of Kalypsan hive-workers; certain areas have obsessive miners driven by fear, greed and lust while others have manufactoria workers driven to hostile mistrust, malaise or even cruelty.

In Kalypsa, the clerics and Arbitrators have their work cut out for them; there are subtle signs of a Chaos cult's presence yet there appears to be no ringleaders. New arrivals make headway but after a month begin to hear things. After a couple of years, the impact appears to become much more noticeable - those with gelt spend time on a dome-port, those without enter seclusion for prayer and self-mortification. Those who do not eventually flee into the darkness of the tunnels.

dark heresy: Alpheus Primus

The first world of the Alpheus system to be settled, this Imperial world is a hub of activity for the expansion of the Emperor's glory. Five hundred years ago, the Alpheusians were a developing religious culture that were purged of heresy at the cost of 80% of their population. Those left saw the light and declared for the Empire. The world was garrisoned for strategic importance and mineral-rich asteroids around it were mined to construct ships for a fleet - a work which still proceeds to this day.

Alpheus Primus was a popular destination for Imperium citizens looking to escape scandals from other sectors - their arrival on a planet where love of the Emperor was so manifest helped bring them back into orthodoxy while the remaining Alpheusians had the chance to learn from those whose faith had been tested. The results were integration of both groups into a coherent group and while loyalty is tested, the citizens of this planet show a clear awareness of Imperial culture found only on other Imperial home worlds.

The planet's current governor is Pater-Governor Danniel Harz, an Ecclesiarch from Holy Terra sent to oversee assimilation. Despite whispers of Harz being out-of-favour with the Ecclesiarchy, his Terran origin, the fact he doubled Imperial tithes and halved reports of Recidivist activity give him a mystique to Imperial scholars. Harz has competent and diligent staff and encourages innovative use of local resources - if he is an Inquisitor, nobody living on Alpheus Primus knows it, though certain rumours about why the Ecclesiarchy will not promote him persist.

Faith in the Emperor is strong on Alpheus Primus; the Ecclesiarchy and Administratum found strong footholds among the Alpheusian clergy and assimilated those compliant with Imperial creed while converting backsliders into servitor units. Tech-priests here specialise in servitor construction and old or infirm Alpheusians often petition to be converted into servitor units to continue their service to the Emperor. Even skull servitors are respected by locals - you may be crossing the path of an ancestor loyal to the Emperor.

Assassination on Alpheus Primus is an ecumenical matter - an Imperial Assassinorum called the Black Monastery teaches fanatical devotion to the Emperor with skillful murder and it's patrons include the Pater-Governer and certain Ecclesiarchs who bear the marks of sanctioned Imperial psykers. It's alumni, called the Dark Brothers are quiet, devoted killers. Other assassins can be found among the hive dregs but these are less reliable, less devoted and much more mercenary in nature and business dealings.

Psykers on Alpheus Primus are handled swiftly and efficiently by Arbitrators and Ecclesiarchy alike, informing on nascent psykers yields a lucrative reward and the drug, Spook is outlawed on pain of death. Imperial psykers are put to work within the Administratum or Ecclesiarchy as scholars where their unique talents can assist in their work. More violent psykers are assigned to the Arbitrators as 'witch hunters' and often exert their cruel streaks against fellow psykers before sending them to the Black Ships for sanction.

Alpheus Primus has two major hive-settlements; Hive Kastor who specialises in biomechanical enhancements, electronics and servitor manufacture and Hive Polluxe, whose manufactoria create military ordnance, vehicles and chemicals including plasma cells and combat drugs like Frenzon and Stimm; it also has the Dioskurros spacedock where battlefleet vessels are built from minerals from the slowly depleting asteroid belt near Alpheus Primus. Resources are not yet a concern though the Adepts of the Administratum are working on contingency plans now.

Technological levels on Alpheus Primus are varied; nobility and their forces wield lasweapons, chainblades and carapace, Arbitrators use shock mauls, solid projectiles and riot armour or mesh while street scum use solid projectiles and gang leathers. This is not absolute, the black market in Hive Polluxe is active enough for criminals to get laspistols for a price yet these weapons are not casually used as it draws heavy Arbitrator attention. When insurrections in the hives occur, they are swiftly suppressed by Arbitrators supported by the local noble's forces.

A network of Recidivists called the Libertines are a recurring thorn - once a political resistance, now they are a decadent drug cartel targetting honest Imperial citizens. They foster corruption and vice in Imperial officials, blackmail them if they fall to temptation to expose them publically once the official cannot afford to pay. Arbitrators regularly smash Libertine cells but to date, the ringleaders are not exposed and they always have another supplier and another cell to replace those lost to Arbitration - disturbingly former Imperial citizens have appeared as Libertines.

Monday, 20 April 2009

face and fashion

Always wearing the same armour unless they get an upgrade of some kind; their living expenses primarily on inns, weapons and the occasional new 10' pole? Are these your heroes and why should courtiers and kings respect then when they smell so badly? Adventuring can take you into some pretty severe (and unpleasant) situations...

Life on the road is not as glamourous as it sounds - the Hell's Angels can testify on that point. Medieval hygeine wasn't always as frequent as today (some thought King John effete because he bathed weekly) yet in some cultures (like Byzantium or Rome), bathing was expected and in fact the norm among certain classes.

Monthly expenditure is only really applicable to cities, the military and business; depending on where you are and how you measure time. Seasonal movements are better - a pragmatic need to change clothes by weather with shifts in fashion. Besides, if you're het up about the monthly thing, multiply costs by three each season, depending on calendar. Less paperwork, more fun.

Larger excesses may be expected in decadent courts where the jaded and fashion conscious drive up costs. Refusal to pay for this incurs social penalties (ranging from court disapproval to being arrested for tax evasion) - note the lower down the social hierarchy, the stricter the punishment though snubbing court is bad enough for some people.

So every season consider the following:
  • Location. City life is more expensive than rural living (people go to the city to seek their fortune after all). Nobles and courtiers pay through the nose for court time and gods save the King, who must outdo everyone. Decadent courts demand outrageous costs to amuse jaded sensibilities even when fashion is your skin decorated in gold leaf knotwork. Equally the northern barbarians don't mind your old bearskin - it's warm and you killed the bear!

  • Prices. Royal perogatives (purple, ermine, venison from royal forests and swan) make good story hooks as people inevitably try to profit from or break laws out of necessity. Certain dyes may be valuable (as in treasure) due to hazardous manufacture or far-off origin. Then there's the simple fact of cost and availability to consider; courtier outfits are not always available on demand in a rural village.

  • Quality of lifestyle. Cloistered monks have different requirements to courtiers to city watchmen. Soldiers need to repair weapons damaged in duty. Feudal serfs need to pay taxes to their lord and work the land (possibly needing hired help if they're adventuring) or risk becoming outlaw.
Assign a basic cost for seasonal lifestyle modified by the above criteria. Failure to meet this cost results in a cumulative -1 per season penalty to social skills (in 4E this is Bluff, Diplomacy and Intimidate) to a maximum of -4 as people look down on your shabby manner. For those in positions of power or responsibility, this can be a significant problem.

On reaching -3 or -4, there should be even more tangible consequences. Those who live in cities may attract disease or incur harassment from gangs or the watch. Those who make some kind of profit from holdings or business will see losses due to their appearance. In court, this may be sneered upon or even worse offend, leading to a quest or charter to clear reputation or at least get the miscreant out of harm's way.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

dark heresy: Strine's World

Another world for Dark Heresy.

Strine's World is an Earth-sized planet, designated as a Feral World by Imperial lexicographers and catalogued by Chartist Captain Marius Strine who has identified three continents as being of interest to the Imperium. The remaining islands have yet to be charted but appear to show no human life. Strine profitted in shipping warriors for uplifting as Imperial guardsmen in return for rudimentary technology and breeding Grox.

Mauger - This desert-like continent in the southern hemisphere has a violent and perverse indigenous population that form extended clans who war with each other riding in sand-rogues (two-person methane-fueled dune buggies fitted with wind sails); the rogue warriors are hardy, if primitive and value water and methane as well as their own reputations. These natives are often tattooed and scarred, never mentioning the dead in case they come back.

The other thing about Mauger is the native saurian carnosaur population who complicate the clan wars sometimes by eating the combatants. Short-haired Grox provide both human and carnosaur with meat and leather - Mauger hospitality involves feasts known as bar-bee where roasted Grox and reptile meat with watery yet refreshing rotgut booze are consumed in great quantities. The resulting tensions can start wars over an oasis or methane refinery.

Mauger Rogue Warrior
WS:33 BS:33 S:38 T:42 Ag:33 Int:30 Per:33 WP:25 Fel:25
Movement: 3/6/9/18 Wounds: 13 Insanity Points: 2
Skills: Drive (Ground Vehicle), Speak Language (Strine's World),
Talents: Sound Constitution, BWT: Primitive, PT: Primitive.
Weapons: Hand bow or crossbow with melee attachment and 20 bolts, club, knife.
Gear: Heavy leathers (AP 2), Sand-rogue (max. speed 30 mph).
Threat Rating: Hereticus Minima

Lekbar
- An equatorial island continent with lush jungles and coastal civilisations, Strine found the locals enthusiastic traders yet some city-states have rulers with viziers as advisors to the ruler, some of whom are rogue psykers. Fortunately these city-states are perpetually at war with each other and if one becomes too ambitious, the others ally against it and those rogue psykers who can't hide their curse are usually executed by the fearful populace.

The Lekbari have extensive if basic medical and pharmaceutical skills; they routinely drink good-quality amasec and recaf and have access to obscura, stimm and a weak version of slaught (+2 to Agility/Perception bonus but only -10 penalty for 1d5 hours). The Lekbari are deadly fighters, virtually all assassins from Strine's World come from Lekbar and once uplifted their loyalty to the Emperor borders on the fanatical.

Isar
- A northern polar continent, this was the crash site for a ship captured a few centuries ago by Orks; the resulting crater threw enough ash and dust into the air to set Strine's World back a few millenia and caused an ice-age across the entire northern hemisphere; signs of increased volcanic activity will resume glaciation which may reach as far as Lekbar. This creeping ice is heralded by dark clouds and increased rain.

Primitive cannibal mutants haunt the ice; travelling in packs to hunt each other and worship the long-haired Grox. These mutants are nightsiders, the glare from the sun and ice almost cripples them. Occasionally a mutant will walk during the day but it's gross appetites for flesh (including the sacred Grox) make them outcast and the 'daywalkers' are feared for their unnatural habits and outlandish violence against their neighbours.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

dark heresy: Hive Saelex-3

This is the first world in a series for use with Dark Heresy. These worlds lie outside the Calixis Sector and may be incorporated into any other sector desired by the Game Master. Plots that link these worlds may appear in other posts in future.

Hive Saelex-3
- The third moon of the gas giant Saelex is a hive world that thrives on the riches of the gas mines orbiting Saelex; the gas is used to fuel the hive-city built on any available surface of the cast mines where the core of Saelex-3 was drilled out by the miners to create the gas mines. The other two moons are small rocks without atmosphere used as relay stations for the communications networks between the orbital mines, spaceships and the hive.

The surface of Saelex-3 is a sea of antennae, crevasses leading into interior tunnels (known to the natives as Cuniculi), solar cell domes and outward-facing docking towers (known as the Clavi Imperialis) where spaceships land. Atmosphere on Saelex-3 is sparse and tainted by pollutants that exact a toll (10 minutes x Toughness bonus before you take a Fatigue level) on those without fresh air. Rebreather refill sales are brisk (such canisters are Easy to obtain).

The Clavi Imperialis are decorated with plasteel icons praising long-dead heroes of the Empire where Saelexian mining ships pump their gas cargo in return for payment. Open flames of any kind are prohibited by law in case of gas leaks - Arbitrators, workers and tech-priests who work the Clavi are keen to extinguish fires at source. Gas leaks are not commonplace but the resulting inferno makes everyone suitably edgy and means that a loss has been made.

The interior tunnels (Cuniculi) are wide enough to navigate a guncutter or Aquila lander through (Ordinary; +10 to Pilot checks) but landing without designated points is Hard (-20 to Pilot tests) due to antennae, cables and relays around hive-towers. Gas is pumped via plascrete-shielded, pressure-sealed arterial canals (fossae) into manufactoria and storage tanks. The fossae are a platform for a grav-rail transit system handled by tech-priests used to transport materials.

Those who live here (about 200,000) are hive dregs labouring to orders from Saelexian tech-priests under vigilant Arbitrator patrols and clerics. The healthy market constrasts with the street air (1 hour x Toughness bonus or take a Fatigue level) . Gangs will often incorporate gas masks into their colours and the sound of respirators often presage a mugging or gang war. Internal buildings have hydroponic domes and biofiltration systems that yield clean air.

The heart of the moon (Cor Cavum) is studded with noble towers and biodomes similar to the surface yet the atmosphere is better here (6 hours x Toughness bonus or take a level of Fatigue - fainting spells are sometimes known among the nobility). The triumvirate of nobles here are protected by retinues and nasal filters; the bare faced nobility and retinue broadcast edicts to the hive who aspire to these clean-living leaders of humanity.

The triumvirate of noble families oversee different functions; House Klayntire command the core of military forces on Saelex-3. House Lukiver manage the monorail and fossae operations while House Ignale manage the manufactoria through two trading houses who are rivals arising out of a deep-seated family conflict. The triumvirate makes use of neonate psykers but binds all those who serve the nobles with explosive collars - just in case.

giving back to the community: shrine of horned justice

Another bit of open-source 4th edition goodness for you hurried DMs!

An abandoned shrine created by dwarves that offers the secrets of dead criminals in return for their bodies. It's now guarded by troglodytes, vine horrors and cave bears. Did I fail to mention the snaketongue cultists and the undead who just won't stay slain? Well, I knew there was something odd about that place.

Welcome to the Shrine of Horned Justice. Tread carefully.

Friday, 17 April 2009

entering the matrix

I've previously discussed plots in terms of railways and museums, however there is another route for plotting which may be useful in terms of interactive environments and that is to use a matrix.

This differs from the previous routes as follows:
  • A matrix is not a railway because all the stations are linked to each other; you don't need to go A-B-C-D, you can go A-D-B-C or any other combination if you start from A - which is entirely up to you. Starting somewhere is useful, even in media res.

  • A matrix is not a museum because there are no guided tours. People can still wander around like in a museum but there is nothing steering you. You can walk, swim, fly or tunnel wherever you like. Any sense of sequence arises from game play or narrative.
There is a similarity in the sense that everyone starts somewhere and can end up somewhere; the advantages of using a matrix is as follows:
  • Increased versimilitude - You know how easy/difficult it can be to get a Japanese samurai into a European medieval setting? So you can say yes/no with confidence or even maybe if you feel so inclined. Everything hangs together, you know your neighbours.

  • Players get to determine their own damn route - this is the holy grail if you're ready for delays in achieving consensus or bad decisions based on whimsy, player boredom or trust games (if I go to a dragon, will you sic it on me?) for you.

  • Wherever you go, you're prepared. So your players want to go see the mountain witch to get the river-dragon's curse removed? No problem. You know what's on the way, where they have to go and how much trauma they will experience.
There are risks in using a matrix.
  • Game balance and discretion - if your dragon lives in that particular area and the 1st-level party want to start a fight then it's going to be short-lived. Signposting is helpful but to some gung-ho types, this is a red flag situation and they need to be educated.

  • Short-cuts for linear plots - will occur. Linear plots can be entirely circumvented or surgically truncated in a matrix setting. Derailed plots usually end up in chaos, sometimes lovely, sometimes a mess. Your mileage and improvisational skills may vary.

  • There is more work involved. Not just the preparation of each border but also possible directions the player can travel and the overall intention of the game. You can get by with sketchy areas in a railway or museum plot but white space in matrix plots is bad.
The matrix model is a popular option for campaign-style play as it's possible to build large and then start from various points within the same location, ensuring playability and re-use if you have a relatively small playerbase or even a large one. The amount of work involved however is significant which is why most matrix games (or campaigns) are collaborative efforts.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

dungeon construction: you

"What? I have to appear in this dungeon?" Well not explicitly but...

In a sense you are already there. Your own preferences and foibles sneaked in along the way. If you're someone who loves big honking combats then you've designed for that already (and included the extra strong pot of coffee for your players) and your traps are nasty pieces of work. If you prefer character exploration and dialogue with puzzles, it's different.

Of course you can play against type and such things can be particularly effective - in this you can craftily solicit the help of other people (and the Internet is such a wonderful tool for this) via the online forums and blogs you peruse. With all this content and inspiration, it's going to be very very difficult for a rules lawyer/setting maven to keep up with everything.

There are other ways - maybe by making anagrams and word play of your family's names into the setting a la Gary Gygax. Maybe modelling monsters on unpleasant co-workers for Boffo the Barbarian to whack with his axe? Rumour has it Planescape's Lady of Pain is based on a female executive of TSR. Don't worry you're not the only one who does it.

The dungeon need not be a Rorschach-blot of your deepest fears and fantasies. Yet these can be strong inspiration if handled with respect for you and your players. You can get some intense gaming out these things - even common dreams of flying, falling or being chased by a dinosaur can have an impact on your players if managed right.

Case in point - spiders. I ran a Vampire game where the main antagonists were spiders who'd inadvertently been ghouled by an incapacitated vampire who was running out of blood. When a character found the vampire and a spider crawled out of it's mouth, the player sat thunderstruck and then smiled - later he congratulated me on the impact of that particular scene.

Joseph Campbell proposes the underworld is an allegory for the challenges and trials of life and every writer writes of what they know about. Know, respect and entertain your players (who put on their own show with their characters, even if they seem utterly different) as well and you can create something with the power of your own internal mythology.

Or just have a laugh with it. You remember, fun?

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

recap: on character

I did some posts on character earlier in the year; while this is a recap of those posts I thought it would be handy to have these all together for reference. If you want a well-rounded character then take a look and see if there's anything you want to pick out.

Characters and characteristics - just who or what are these people?
Attributes and attribution - what is it about them?
Motives and motivation - what makes them tick?
Emotional easter eggs - how they feel and how that colours things.
Inferences and inferiae - where they've come from
Relationships and relativity - how they change and how they differ.
Reasons and reasonability - a final check for fit.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

papa's got a brand new (dice) bag

Visited the FLGS on Saturday. A pilgrimage involving a train journey (yes I can source RPGs from local shops but there are no specialists where I am) in order to spend money and get an indication of the state of the art. I went in intending to buy PHB2 but failed to do so; when I handed over the swag, it got switched with Dark Heresy: Creatures Anathema.

Fortunately for me, I also have Dark Heresy and my guaranteed DH player I know doesn't have it yet. It's a lovely glossy book (expensive but IMHO worth it) and Fantasy Flight know their audience well. The monsters are the mix of wonderful horror and fantasy pastiche that DH excels in. The final chapter is an excellent section for GM advice too.

In my bag of swag was a cool dice bag with the Elder Sign on it, a couple more trinkets and a little game called Colonial Gothic by Rogue Games which I read on the train back. I didn't expect quality fluff (Indian PCs with proper tribal backgrounds) and simple mechanics featuring every AD&D grognard's icon , the d12! I heartily recommend it and it's companion volume Secrets.

I may do a couple of one-shots and even put some things up here for perusal. The total cost for Colonial Gothic and Secrets was £20; I think the PHB2 was £16. Is it a bad thing you can get a rule set, a setting and a sourcebook for nearly the same price as a partial rules upgrade for a game? Do we even think in those terms any more?

Maybe I didn't look like (whatever that is) a 4E player. No matter, I can find a deadtree copy anytime - legal PDF may be trickier of course. Besides, the DM for the latest game I'm about to start has declared it's 3.xE forevermore for him and I have no current headspace to run 4E right now (rebooting a Mage:The Ascension game while moving house) though I'm writing stuff fine.

Monday, 13 April 2009

dungeon construction: gimmicks

The use of gimmicks in a dungeon is a matter of taste. Not everyone needs distractions from the core activities of exploration; however there are opportunities to bring a distinctive feel (yes, you may refer to this as set dressing with impunity) yet the best things is to see stuff being brought along and used because it's just so damned useful. Let's riff on the TV Tropes site who posit an entire console RPG experience with essential criteria and see what's there...

Derelict ghost ship - Take gothic. Add pirate. Tap into the whole Pirates of the Caribbean or Monkey Island vibe that people still smile fondly about.
  • Black pearl - it summons a pirate skeleton to fight by your side.
  • Flask of rum - This unique brew may provide minor healing, may fortify your combat abilities or even allow you to breathe fire. It will probably get you drunk as well but that's perfectly reasonable.
  • Ornate cutlass - Probably not magical but makes certain swashbuckling moves easier.
  • Maps - Some may even lead you to treasure.
  • Spooky spyglass - As a regular spyglass but sometimes shows you a ghostly world filled with undead pirates. Or even just X-ray vision.
Glowing crystal maze - Probably because console & computer-based RPGs can do glowy and transparent really well. So, going with the flow here... it's glowing crystal versions of equipment and stuff the characters will take with them just in case they end up in a dark place.
  • Egg-shaped crystal that can be hurled like a bomb to do your foes harm.
  • Enchanted glowing crystal that stores information inside it. Retrieving this information can range from touching it to your forehead to placing it in a crystal stump and watching the pretty pictures that appear.
  • Glowing crystal sword (or other edged or pointy weapon) with incredible sharpness that does horrific damage to an opponent with a cumulative chance of breaking over time.
  • Small crystal that glows when you tap it with a tuning fork or sing a specific note.
  • Star-shaped crystal that emulates a shuriken except it glows.
Ice dungeon - Everyone has this because the whole barbarians in furs thing needs to be done at least once (unless you're in a desert-based campaign obviously) and you can be as grim as Pathfinder, exotic as Sinbad or as downright odd as Kull the Conqueror according to taste.
  • Bone weapons - because mining and smithing here is too hard. Do you think keeping a fire going at this temperature is easy? I mean, it's not like there's fire magic around here, is there? Although if you're a fan of the Winter of the World series, you may have your own view. And at least one of these will be a harpoon. Still when you're toe-to-toe with a rust monster, you're the one that's laughing.
  • Furs (which protect against the cold automatically!) of strange and exotic beasts - some of which you will meet on your adventure. Don't say we didn't warn you, being here means you might even have to skin them as well.
  • Unguents and oils which will allow you to survive intense cold wearing less because at some point your furs will be damaged or rendered soaking wet and our art departments must honour the traditions of Frazetta and Vallejo.
  • Weapons made of hardened ice which do cold damage and as the crystal weapons in the above example are not made to last. In fact, if you head to warmer climes, that enchanted ice battle axe may become an enchanted ice-water mixer.
Magic floating castle - You already invoked Chekov by having the castle floating in the air; at some point someone is going to fall off it (villain invoking a mysterious death) or due to dumb happenstance (say someone wants to rodeo a flying monster) on your players' part.
  • Climber's harness that lets you attach ropes to it.
  • Crossbow which fires a grappling hook further than you could throw one. Just in case.
  • Winged harness with wings made of wax and feathers which allows you to fly (but needs both your arms to do so) but if you get hit by a fire-based attack it's going very wrong, very quickly.
Technological dungeon - Technological need not be modern or sci-fi. Imagine a dungeon based around the designs of Leonardo da Vinci would look... and you get to reference even more advanced technology if you are so inclined. Steampunk might be a bit horrific though.
  • Black powder pistol or rifle - The damage need not be huge and the rate of fire is usually much slower than conventional medieval weapons however, the ability to point and go boom has a peculiar allure.
  • Sword-breaker dagger - A dagger to confound your opponent which can help in the disarming of said enemy if they've got a sword obviously. In fact any kind of sword with secret flanges or catches adds to the cool factor.
What kinds of things would you put in a dungeon?

And what would you bring along afterwards?

Saturday, 11 April 2009

three things: you might want to know

Free (as in beer) music - In these times of shocking piracy (which has been going on since Usenet I hasten to add) it's refreshing to find someone willing to showcase something for nothing. A beat combo called Nine Inch Nails who did the music for Quake back in the day have lots of free music in return for contact details. Take a look at Ghosts, The Slip and the Remix section (which is an absolute goldmine) - Hollywood use them, so why shouldn't you?

Tell your friends
- In the wake of that decision, a number of publishers are stepping up to discount their own PDF products, whether to take up the slack or steal a march, we're not sure but we aren't minding it either way. Chaosium announced a Basic Roleplaying quick start and DriveThru RPG are currently selling Exalted 2nd ed for the princely sum of nothing. I've never seen one gaming company's decision spark so much interest in it's competitors.

Writing opportunity!
- 6d6 Fireball are running an adventure-writing competition in both amateur and semi-pro. You may find it helpful to include bearded devils in your adventure and if you include a boss and three minion-types that's just peachy. Deadline is May 12th so boot up your word processors and get going. They'll publish the winning entry and you get profits and the chance to further your name.

Friday, 10 April 2009

dungeon construction: ordnance

By ordnance, I'm talking about the weapons of a dungeon, it's capacity to harm intruders and those who would otherwise raze it and destroy it's occupants. Defence is a major considerations of most dungeons (for those boltholes and fortresses it's the main one) and as the old saw says, a good defence is a strong offence. So those weapons become a key consideration for people who live there.
  1. Armoury - If you've got an organised, militaristic group of monsters in the area, this is one of the things you'd expect to see. Apart from providing a mustering point in case of invasion by hostile forces, it also allows the owners to arm themselves according to need and if you're surrounded by enemies, conserving ammunition becomes a necessity; it is also a potential source of treasure to canny players.
  2. Creatures - The monsters themselves may also be placed to do some serious damage to any intruders or interlopers. Guard creatures need not just provide alarm but also deter intruders by big, sharp teeth (and other features). While some creatures are effectively living deathtraps, others have different purposes (e.g. a gelatinous cube can be used as an effective septic tank) and just also kill things as an aside.
  3. Environment - Large pools of lava needn't just provide illumination and hot water on demand. They can also roast anyone intruding into them. Having already touched on the dungeon environment, consider what lethal environments can be found there.

    • Ice caves can include crevasses, slippery slopes, snow drifts to slow down movement, glare from bright ice sheets and clouds of stinging ice-crystals borne on chill winds.
    • Lava beds can include jets of burning gas, pyroclastic bombs (large, heated rocks fired from inside the bed) and clouds of choking ash as well as poisonous gases.
    • Waterlogged dungeons can include sudden undertows, slippery mud or algae, tainted water (just don't swallow) and of course, aquatic monsters.

  4. Traps - The purpose behind the trap can be many and varied, ranging from deterrent to buying time, to sealing off areas to outright death.

    • Deterrents can be as simple as a loud flashbang made by alchemical re-agents (with very little damage indeed) to a corridor filled with thread that if broken or snagged release a crossbow bolt in that direction (the threads feed through the walls back to a eyelet under a repeating crossbow).
    • Buying time can be done through slowing movement by a giant spider pinata filled with centipedes and caltrops on the ceiling (the pinata will move and dare the players keep moving under it?), pouring boiling oil down a stairwell or a rolling rock trap (which they have to let aside).
    • Sealing off areas enables you to control the movement of your enemies, whether this is by rotating or sliding walls or by controlled rockslides and portcullis traps.
    • Outright death - The poison needle in the chest is one way of doing this, as is the chute dumping the victim into a lava bed.
You needn't work out exactly to the letter how much damage the whole thing will inflict on the characters. Keep in mind the purpose and intent of the dungeon and assign ordnance by those categories and the abilities of the architect and occupants. An ogre may not be smart enough to restock the arrow trap but can certainly pull the rope to hoist up the piledriver trap again.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

giving back to the community: the black midden

An opportunity for those harried 4E DMs who have just discovered that they can't buy any replacement PDFs if their laptop goes phut. Now available for your downloading pleasure. Otyugh, Orcus cults and shadar-kai, oh my! Made with open source software, the latest Adventure Filler - The Black Midden.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

game for a laugh

Aristotle posited comedy could emulate characters of base nature who despite their flaws and outrageous behaviour obtain success until they get their comeuppance. Aristotle also posited drama was born out of a need to know the other, provoke thought and to experience emotions in a safe, controlled manner. Does this sound familiar?

What comedic tropes are appropriate for RPGs?

Blue - Some of the more amusing April posts this year (including this provocative guest post by Geek's Dream Girl on Critical Hits) involving situations best filed under adult. I only imagine what a Benny Hill-style chase would look like as a 4E skill challenge. Before indignation at the smut sinks in, this kind of comedy has Classical precedent in the works of Aristophanes (Lysistrata) and the satyricon, running through troubadour plays and commedia dell'arte into Shakespearean farces and Edwardian burlesque.

Dark - Laughing about unpleasant events and horrific situations is a defence mechanism and the better dark comedies (Death Becomes Her) are very gamer-friendly. Not every game needs a Joker derivative to be dark comedy either. Having personally led attacks of gallows humour (in one case literally) on a truly dark 2E Ravenloft game, it can help alleviate things and provide a counterpoint to the relentless horror. Just try not to invoke too many action-hero one-liners because that way lies cheese. And cheesy is the death of dark humour.

Observational - Two words - Murphy's Rules. Although skewering the rules in this fashion is antithetical to suspension of disbelief, some things deserve commentary; such as 1E AD&D's three ranger rule (more than three rangers can never travel together - no explanation - do they reach critical mass?). Playing against assumptions can also work well (the half-orc fighter whose orcish mum left her abusive human husband) and contrast existing preconceptions while making us laugh about them.

Surreal - Monty Python and Terry Gilliam provided endless inspiration to gamers, such that the typical reader of this blog may recite the Parrot Sketch in regular, movie and Hollywood Bowl. Absurdity, juxtapositions and non-sequiturs outline the fate of characters trapped in a world with seemingly no meaning but that imposed by those flawed individuals or their individual flaws. From the Goons to Castle Greyhawk, there are things to provoke laughs and if you're looking for something more contemporary, I recommend the Mighty Boosh.

Word play - This is something Gary Gygax was particularly fond of, his use of ananyms in the GDQ modules in particular (drow names in particular) as well as obscure terms and cant to describe character qualities (a magsman is a thief y'know). As Stan Lee famously remarked "If a kid has to go to a dictionary, that's not the worst thing that could happen." Word play is also found in kenning (Norse symbolic poetry) and heraldry, which uses punning allusions or a rebus to identify knights or towns.

Wit - The snappy comeback, sardonic response and sometimes cruel ripostes that target a character's defects or dialogue - by exposing the situation as it is against how it should really be. As with all comedy, the response must be timely unless you are haunted by l'esprit d'escalier. Word play and conceptual thinking are keys to wit, opportunity is the lock. A past master was the talented Cyrano de Bergerac.

A word on jesters - The role of the jester was a significant one. The court of a king is politically loaded and the jester could provoke frank discussion on controversial issues purely due to their role and could be consulted because they lacked any kind of holdings or interest. The role of fool often needed someone who was anything but since an unpopular fool could be banished from court (as happened to the celebrated jester Archibald Armstrong, formerly of the court of James VI of Scotland) and forced to live off the proceeds of their written quips.

Finally, a shaggy dog story from a friend's AD&D adventure in the manner of Ronnie Corbett - In the words of Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst "Don't blame me man, I didn't do it."

"The adventurers find a magical ring. They don't know what it is, only it's powerful protective magic and the inscription says "Don't identify me." So being literate they take it to an NPC and render him insensible with money. He uses magic to identify the item and starts laughing so hard that in his weakened condition he dies from being unable to breathe. Fearful they have found some terrible cursed item, the party take the item to a shrine so it may be cleansed and then passed onto another wizard. Same thing happens - needless to say, they take the item to a sage. She recognises it as being made by a powerful wizard known to have fought dragons. At this point, all the greed flows into the heads of the players and they round up the party wizard and offer a ridiculous sum of money even though she probably won't make the identify check. She does and then she starts sniggering but then manages to control herself (a saving throw was required). It's then learned the ring protects you from flying dragon dung and communicates this by a mental image. Which goes to show where there's dung, you'll get adventurers willing to pay over the odds for it."

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

dungeon construction: legendry

You know who built the dungeon, why, who's living there now and who's in charge. You know the prevalent conditions. Now you can tell them all about it... but before you do, let's talk about talking wallpaper. A phenomenon where a supporting character becomes a font of exposition only to wander into the aether, lost forevermore.

Barmaids, merchants, peasants working the field, little old men from scene 24 - all can reduce to talking wallpaper by application of needless exposition. Do they deserve this ignominious fate? They may know something you don't - although such knowledge may not be readily translatable into wealth galore. If it was, do you think they'd be talking to you?

So, how to avoid redecorating in talking wallpaper?
  1. Books - Elminster's Ecologies were a nice way of putting in additional lore about creatures. Not all books in a dungeon contain spells or obscure rites, some even contain knowledge. How much detail you go into depends on your time - a notebook can be a very nice draw for campaign play and can foreshadow future events.
  2. Graffiti - The writing on the wall can save a little old man from obscurity. It's also a nice way of show and tell that doesn't need setup. If you're subtle, you make it a way to show which parts of a dungeon are cleared out (doubtless such enabling behaviour sets grognard teeth on edge) or introduce recurring plot threads - not all graffiti is complimentary...
  3. Poetry & songs - If you're modestly talented, you can put together scraps of verse or song that refer to dungeon denizens. You don't have to sing or recite them and such verse is not unknown - either as a cryptic saying or as a known clue to taunt adventurers. Some races are known for their love of song and poetry, why not include it?
  4. Public notices - Something for people who enjoy creating props - finding a public notice for a tournament on a dead warrior can offer a new hook. If a character is outlaw, a wanted poster is a nice touch if only as they get to re-enact every outlaw trope with their prop ("Only 500 crowns? Must do something about that...") and you will get players competing.
Of course, you can also use people as well.
  1. Endangered contacts. It is an age-old truism players feel they've earned information if they had to risk something for it. Be sure to make the information proportionate to the risk and also consistent. It's an unusual magician who knows the combination to the evil Duke's cunning death-trap and who is beholden to a group of heroes.
  2. Enigmatic sources. The mysterious stranger is another cliche ranging from meddler to divine avatar (and meddler). Perhaps they have plans for the characters or will portray themselves differently from their true visage or even use intermediaries; you need to consider how your players will respond to this kind of thing.
  3. Recurring contacts. From wise sages to knowing courtiers to out-of-luck lowlifes, there is nothing wrong with these people as long as you get multiple shots from them. Give them their own life and motivation to help the characters and you've got durability and maybe the players will come to get to know them...
  4. Self-destructing sources. A cliche but effective. "Whatever you do, don't... "(person dies). Perhaps one of the best examples was a Call of Cthulhu scenario where the source mutates through magic into a monster, the longer you stay, the more information you get but you may have to clean up the mess.
The information about a place may grow in the retelling. For example the Tower of London, with ravens who must always stay on pain of England's ruin, people drowning in barrels of wine, a pair of princes never seen again, tales of a demigod's head buried underneath it, the repository for a kingdom's crown jewels. This is just the stuff we know about...

Your dungeons need not go as all-out as that. Maybe two stories? A really big place like the labyrinth of Crete, designed by the greatest engineer of that time to house a terrible monster with an appetite for human flesh, whispered to be the unholy union between the queen and a sacred bull. Do Knowledge checks about your dungeons have that kind of zing?

And if not, why not? Share your thoughts...

Sunday, 5 April 2009

this is what a best seller looks like... and I do...

A hat tip to Wizards of the Coast for getting Players Handbook 2 onto the Wall Street Journal's best seller list during the recession. Interesting to see other fantasy/sci-fi books in there as well. While I'm posting about recession-proof gaming, it looks like Wizards have still got the mojo and the gnome fans have buying power - maybe they're from Zurich? The Core Mechanic has additional figures as does the Paizo message board. Makes interesting reading, particularly with comments about all the nay-saying over 4E being a total over-reaction to the release. Wait and see, says I.

In the interests of breaking ice and just because...

What do I do? Well...
  • I do roleplaying with voices and props. I soak paper in cold tea before baking it for that 'aged parchment' look. Then I practice my calligraphy chops on them. I could put it in the printer but hand-written just looks better and less uniform...
  • I do epic and lo-fi campaigns (I prefer lo-fi but my players love epic, go figure).
  • I do games with music in the background and think movie soundtracks rock. Nothing quite says Dark Sun like Gladiator or modern horror like Natural Born Killers or Resident Evil.
  • I do old WoD in preference to new. Gorgeous as Vampire: The Requiem looks, I'm not thrilled about the nWoD, especially with what happened to Mage. I have high hopes for Hunter: The Vigil if I can find someone to run a game. So not unreasonable, eh?
  • I do laptop at the table if we get the power or the battery life right.
  • I rarely foray into marathon games unless I get a couple of days to recover. I'm old, my ears are dim, eyes are bent, knees are knackered...
  • I write fiction about games but only if there's no danger of a player discovering things they would not know about as it breaks the flow.
  • I do minatures and tape measures though I find it can interferes with the flow of play. Despite this, some of the most enjoyable 3E games I've played involved figures (and tokens). Just keep pets from the table eh?
  • I do fantasy, cyberpunk and modern tabletop with the rare guilty pleasure superhero game. I'm still looking for the perfect sci-fi game (Classic Traveller came close, Trinity didn't alas, Star Wars is fun for one-offs, ...in Spaaace! is my latest hope).
  • I play boardgames on occasion - my current favourites are Arkham Horror and Khet.
  • I do LARP (sci-fi only - one based on Stargate and another cyberpunk).
  • I do cream soda, dandelion & burdock, Relentless, mead, heather ale and real beer.
  • I do crisps/chips/potato snacks, chocolate, take-outs (the more off-the-wall, the better) chocolate cake and fresh fruit & veg with dips in the summertime. I plan on hosting a gaming barbecue if the weather will let me this year.
  • And yes... I do meme posts when I lack willpower.
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