Tuesday, 30 March 2010

scarcity, prosperity and reward

There are a number of ways to sell and promote games these days.

One approach is based on scarcity, making provision of goods and services to individuals who pay for exclusive access to them.  Purchasing is usually dependent on established prior relationship/investment and is dependent on reputation.  Examples of this include subscription models like Dungeon-A-Day, D&D Insider and World of Warcraft.  You pay for access to use services unavailable to others and you get some tangible benefits for doing so.  Pays your money, takes your choice.  A twist on this is the ransom model where X number of people contribute to paying for the publishing of a book who get the book first.

Another is based on prosperity.  The more people have it, the more play and talk about it. And if it's good enough, then more people play and talk about it and the cycle spreads.  Such viral-based approaches have seen an increasing rise given the presence of the Internet but have been around for some time.  The concept and some permutations are well-documented in  Seth Godin's 'Ideavirus'.

The Grateful Dead were original exponents according to this Atlantic article of the Connect With Fans + Return To Buy model used by bands like Nine Inch Nails, Coldplay and Jonathan Coulton to sell their art to us - a model being replicated in the games industry.  Games like Swords and Wizardry, Mutant Future and Eclipse Phase have freely-available electronic copies and all have grass-roots support. 

A third road is to operate a patron model. This can be combined with crowdsourcing - Open Design are doing wonderful things with books like The Red Eye of Azathoth and Tales of the Old Margreve.  Once the book is published, you can buy it and if you've got in at the ground floor will be given credit where credit is due.  Another exponent of this is Nevermet Press, whose first product The Desire was received by everyone who participated in DriveThruRPG's Haiti donation.

Now imagine if playing the game gave you rewards just for playing.  You could start with intangible award badges (say 'Dragon Fragger') to display on your blog, Facebook page or games console. Then escalate it further - offer discounts on products or even gift vouchers for retailers with the right connections. And how many online retailers are going to sniff at a loyal tribe of potential customers? Which method or combination would you choose, as a designer or more importantly, as a consumer?

(inspired by JoeTheLawyer, James Edward Raggi III and Jesse Schell (via Justin Achilli))

Saturday, 27 March 2010

inns & taverns - the mangal lesard

The Mangal Lesard stands on tarred stilts over a mangrove swamp plentiful in bloodsucking vermin.  These range from leeches through mosquitoes to press gangs.  The sign shows a stylised gecko and "Mangal Lesard" mis-spelt around it in gold leaf.   The Lesard has grown from a shack on stilts to a large building with quay and veranda over four generations.  The bittersweet smell of citrus and rushlights chase mosquitoes from the veranda and blends with the smell of the salty estuary which feeds the swamp.  The stained boards gently creak underfoot while gecko and cicada accompany the muttered conversations of fisherman, hunter and overseer and the hushed sibilance of lizardmen drinking outside.  Lanterns and rushlights are seen moving through the mangroves as boats navigate the estuary and people people walk to and from the Lesard.

The clientele is a volatile mix of human colonists and exiles with occasional half-elves and civilised lizardman.  The latter are treated as second-class citizens exploited as scouts, pearl divers and porters.  The owner, Calthus Varro pays lizardmen to harvest oysters for pearls and hunt for food. A portly, brash human with thinning dark hair and perpetual sweat-slicked leer, Calthus projects benevolent entrepreneur yet possesses a low, greedy cunning and considerable personal wealth.  He masks his ugliness by careful etiquette, calculated generosity towards newlywed couples and infrequent assassination.  Varro's bar staff double as cronies and bodyguards of a sort, all of them battle-tried and skilled with the knife at their belts.  Women dressed in widow's colours and smocks work hard as cooks and cleaning maids.  Lizardmen do not stay in the Lesard beyond getting their drinks and those who invite them in offend the patrons and find the staff a lot less helpful until they and their 'scaly friend' leave.

The drink here is variable.  A potent and heavy liquid bread is sold to the lizardmen and poor for a copper; for those with a little more wealth, small ale is served as is coconut rum and pomelo liquor (a tart citrus taste).  Food is plentiful.  Oysters, mud crabs boiled in coconut milk, brown lobster and milkfish grown in wooden cages underneath the Lesard provide staple fare.  The speciality is a stew containing shrimp, oyster and okra thickened with coconut milk.  Varro claims this stew can make any man potent.  Though some local youths have his dark hair and perspiration, the staff encourage ignorance of their ancestry.  Accommodation (with no lizardmen allowed) is split between a common room hung with diaphanous nets for the mosquitoes and two smaller rooms dominated by carved wooden beds with bed posts carved to look like perching geckos.  Tradition has it newlyweds must touch a gecko's head for good luck on their wedding night and Varro has hidden small gifts underneath them in the past.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

what it feels like for a girl

Women gamers are a growing part of our community.  Just like you they have a variety of attitudes and appearances.  There is a conversation to be had - whether it's approached with acceptance or fumbled with fear is down to us.   Just like you, they have a mutual interest yet it's still evident that they are being treated in a manner that doesn't serve them well.  The following presentation by Andrea Phillips at SXSW on how women are typecast in games struck a chord and two minutes later, I read this post by Dungeonmum

Using pink armour and pegasi, techno-tomboy trappings or kickassitude in leather and lace is playing with tropes and fire.  Strong, sustainable literary examples (Eowyn, Hermione Granger, Jessica Atreides, Paksenarrion) exist without using objectification and there are numerous examples of TV and game figures where fan service and going there isn't a key part of what makes the character enjoyable save only to a minority. The mismatch is all the more puzzling when you consider the following points.

How, when and what we talk about affects how we are perceived.
Attitude, presentation and timing all conspire to form how others perceive you.  Living in a small community has it's strengths yet be sure what you put out there will come back to you.  Our world is connected, not just islands but larger masses connected by fluid channels of communication.  Both islands of good practice where ideas are preserved and borders where ideas are exchanged are required.  And everyone keeps churning out new stuff - we are all inherently creative.

In all communication, there are only two routes - what serves your intent and what does not. 
This is 2010 and women count for a third of our community and half of our society.  Awareness of audience is key to success.  Using tropes is fine (Ari Marmell explains how The Conqueror's Shadow did this) if it gives a character authenticity and helps communication.  Yet our audience grows increasingly sophisticated with time.  Stereotyping is lazy thinking and offending a third of your audience to provide just about half with cheap thrills is poor design.

Authenticity + Audience Awareness  >  Lazy Thinking + Poor Design 

Which side of that equation are you and your products on?  And which do you think has greater appeal to all of your audience, not just your core demographic?  It's a challenge increasingly taken up by those finding a receptive and creative audience.

Where I've had successes is to treat women like a gamer who I respect.  I've provided spotlight moments as well as crafting situations to sensibilities.  Character focus and established relationships enable investment in a game and is something women gamers thrive on.  Some of my fondest gaming memories feature games where ladies managed intricate campaigns and sparked intense gaming experiences by challenging the accepted view of a campaign with their perspective.

Now it's your turn.  What would you change to make a game or story more entertaining for women?

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

women of mind

As today is Ada Lovelace Day,  introducing female scientists and scholars into your game may draw no particular response or a few looks depending on your setting.  Here are two historical figures you might want to draw some inspiration from if you want to portray women a little differently from the usual goddess of the arm fare you find in classical fantasy works.

Anna Comnena - The first woman to write a history was a Byzantine princess, the first and favoured child of King Alexius Comnenus who ruled during in the early 12th century.  A well-educated woman, versed in medicine, the classics, science and music she married Nicophoreus Bryennius, a historian with a claim to the throne.  She became her father's physician yet despite her efforts to save him, her younger brother ascended to the throne.  Byzantine politics being what they were, Anna plotted with her mother to overthrow her brother and put Nicophoreus on the throne.  Yet Nicophoreus refused and the plot was uncovered.

Anna, her husband and those involved with the plot left court and during this time Nicophoreus began writing a history of the former king Alexius but died before he could finish it.  Anna and her mother moved into a convent and Anna completed the history, adding in levels of detail and accuracy due to her experiences in court rarely seen in similar works of the time.  The Alexiad was a fifteen volume history in Greek and demonstrates Anna's extensive knowledge of politics, military tactics, astronomy, medicine and science as well as acknowledging the good works of her antecedents.  It also paints a picture of her isolation and disgust at her husband's unwillingness to seize power, noting perhaps their genders should have been reversed...

Sophie Germain - The first woman to be accepted in Parisian university and the Institut de France was the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant and banker.  She studied in her father's library as the French Revolution raged and devoted herself to mathematics on reading of Archimedes of Syracuse.  Self-taught in Greek, Latin and mathematics, she studied against her family's wishes. This defiance of social mores would continue as she adopted the pseudonym M. le Blanc, borrowing the notes of university professors and studied number theory as women were not allowed to study in Parisian universities in the early 1800s.

During this time she entered correspondence with Joseph-Louis Lagrange and Carl Friedrich Gauss both of whom eventually discovered her gender and maintained contact anyway.  She anonymously submitted a paper to the French Academy of Sciences and won a prize she could not collect for fear of scandal.  Yet her work on Chladni figures (modelling vibration patterns) and Fermat's Last Theorem finally gave her acceptance within the scientific community.  She tragically died of breast cancer before she could be awarded an honourary doctorate at Göttingen University.  Her work laid foundations for applied mathematics and mathematical physics used in skyscraper construction, acoustics and elasticity.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

geolocation, geolocation, geolocation!

Mad Brew Labs has an intriguing post on geolocation and RPGs.  The concept of using sites like FourSquare, GoWalla, Layar or Wizi to view location-based information and get has much to recommend it.  Even sans smartphone, you can use more accessible services like SCVNGR and the difference between a podcast and an audio tour is context - namely where you hear it.

You could augment existing gameplay by geolocation.  Pervasive play experiences such as Sandpit's V&A Late events and live-action roleplay (LARP) can be augmented by geocaches, mapped out on GPS route sites like Woophoo or location-specific websites.  This would lend itself well to things like cyberpunk-style data runs or games of exploration.  Set dressing and codes of practice may be needed to enable immersion and avoid misunderstandings though .

Going the ARG (alternate reality game) route allows you to get people to act differently in order to gain benefits (either in game or real-world).   Make following the trail as easy or as hard as you like - some ARG puzzles can get quite fiendish.  Evidence of activities would verify receipt of benefits ("Pics or it didn't happen!") and with consent, provides ready-made marketing.  Speaking of marketing... 

Imagine an event where clues are left at local bookshops.  Collecting the clues allows you to obtain a collectible or find a secret website with a sneak preview PDF, product web enhancement or even a secret level.  Given an online community (maybe Ning, Facebook or even your own site) fans can pool their efforts to work on the puzzles you've given them and this can only serve you well.

Now extend this further.  How about seeding some materials not just at bookshops but also nearby coffee shops, say a tasteful but small flyer in their window and a business card on their noticeboard with a URL - if the coffee shop has WiFi, even better!  Your audience gets a decent cup of joe, you get a whole new place to promote your content.  Such symbiotic relationships can be mutually beneficial.

Geolocation provides another channel, not just for games and story content but also for their marketing - with events like conventions, flash mobs and ARGs providing more opportunities than ever for people to get together and share something they really like, it's an ideal opportunity for someone with a bit of research and a bit of talent to build a passionate community.

Monday, 22 March 2010

changing the world one game at a time

Though this video focuses on WOW, it's relevant because if you think of the amount of time spent on RPGs, we should be ready for just about anything.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

weekend warrior : the losung keep brute squad

The Losung Keep Brute Squad is a mixed force of goblins and humans keeping order in Losung Keep, the largest town of the Losung Highlands.
Each member wears a chainmail coat, metal skullcap and metal shield with a black boar head emblem.
Their attitude to law-enforcement is of the 'smite first, ask questions later' school, ingrained with nearly seven years of dealing with extensive goblin gangs and desperate human brigands.  While the skull cap has led to the mocking name 'tinhead' from some of the local street children, the skullcaps have a very practical function in protecting the head from axes and attempted scalp-taking by goblin blackblades.

Unlike many city watch they attend their duties with a grim determination and bloody-minded zeal. They are disciplined and brutally pragmatic in combat, always fighting efficiently as a group. If they back down, violent deaths in alleyway ambushes and suddenly fatal brawls will be their fate.

Even the goblin troopers are fierce foes, using their knack for stealth and covert activity to their advantage.  Their slightly greater skill with a crossbow makes them good snipers and their willingness to pick locks makes them effective investigators.  Yet the brute squad will group human and goblin together, despite differences in race and culture.  The resulting mixture plays to the strengths of both as troopers use goblin tactics to draw their foes out or maneouver into ideal positions and then follow up with piledriver strikes boosted by predatory eye.  If the troopers launch a surprise attack or have the advantage, the effect can be devastating, especially if three or more are bringing down a lone fugitive.
This has led to accusations of brutality by some keep residents but the brute squad's leader is unconcerned by such charges, claiming "...the brute squad are not there to mollycoddle such hardened scum as they deal with."  In a frontier town like Losung Keep, such arguments have merit and the brute squad is seen as a necessary evil by it's residents.

Their leader is Magistrate Geda Savard. Named the Black Boar for ferocity (and it's whispered stubbornness and looks), she encourages 'tough love' in enforcing order and escalating retribution against those harming the brute squad or herself. Living in the highlands all her life has given her a comprehensive lexicon of Goblin and goblin tactics. Funds from criminal fines and asset seizure enable the brute squad to be well-equipped and this has given them an edge in a town known for sheltering brigands and thieves. Savard's tactical savvy makes the Brute Squad fearsome in a fight and herself is no slacker in combat.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

the losung highlands

The warlord Losung claimed the highlands of his birth with a band of brigands.  He built a fortified keep with five towers on the ruin of his village and with the enforced help of goblins controls the entrance to a mountain pass.  Under his dominion, the highlands were looted of silver, river pearls and wild cattle.  Losung finally died by his son's hand with goblin help.  This set a pattern of violent treachery that ravaged the highlands for the next century as goblins allied with a future successor only to be purged on their ascent to power so the next generation of goblins would fill the void.   In time, the name Losung became the title of the keep's owner yet the brigands still avoided legitimacy. 

Losung Keep is a battered melting pot of human and goblin.  The current Losung marinades in a drunken parody of a noble court surrounded by indifferent whores.  His two sons are spoiled, resentful and barely resemble each other.  Administration is left to Encar Waygard, human mage and embezzler playing at castellan.  Waygard has a pair of apprentices who help him with reckoning wages and assaying the wealth brought by taxing the residents.  The Losung's retinue include local brigands buying sanctuary, notoriously violent cattle thieves and crooked wool merchants.  Keep staff are light-fingered and spiteful in their self-interest.  Goblins scurry between chambers as menial servants and pest control.

The keep is a dungheap of gossip and backbiting kept from chaos by the magistrate Geda "Black Boar" Savard.  A burly, surly woman, privately hated and openly feared for her ferocity, tenacity and harsh judgements.   Prisoners are jailed in the eastern tower she commandeered from the drunken Losung.  Under her hard hand, a brute squad of ironclad humans and goblins reflexively crush all opposition.  Savard has a hatred of constructs and will harass or arrest anyone interested in, associated with or owning one.  Savard is a competent magistrate yet her total lack of social grace means even the drunken Losung is a better ruler.

The keep itself is poorly maintained yet effective.  The majority are human with a token goblin presence and a smattering of other races. Residents abide by druidic traditions where gods of war and wealth make poor company.  Goods can be purchased from visiting fences and traders.  A small group of camp followers ply their trade in the keep and are kept busy.  A tithe is paid to the Losung for this to continue to the disgust of Magistrate Savard.  Failure to pay means exile and there are few places to go other than the shanty town or the brigand camps in the highlands.  Neither fate is willingly chosen.

Outside the walls, the shanty town clings to the rocks like lichen and birdlime.  Poor humans and goblins live cheek-by-jowl, working as labourers in quarries and placer mines and scavenging the cast-offs of the retinue, their servants and hangers-on.  Gangs form for mutual protection under the leadership of brigands, goblin hexers and underbosses.  Violent outbreaks occur only for the Magistrate and her brute squad to restore peace by breaking heads. Blackblades are routinely used by the Losung, Waygard and the brigands to retrieve stolen goods and for occasional dirty work.  Sharpshooters practice their trade by hunting hares and accompanying the brigands on raids.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

úatha: horror stories

Slainte! It's St. Patrick's Day.  Highmoon's Ponderings are running a carnival and hope you find the craic.  Celtic bards had a number of story formats, one of which was úatha or horrors where a protagonist meets something truly horrific. The Gaelic word úath signifies horror, usually supernatural.  It became linked to fúath, a shape or spectre.  Such stories often show a protagonist's courage or set them on the road to heroic deeds which may kill them. There are many monsters in Irish tales, some úatha deal with:
  • Reptilian sea monsters.
  • Horrific spectres
  • Vicious thugs with something of the night about them
  • Shapeshifting men and women.
  • The confusion of battle that makes ally kill ally. 
One example is the tale of Fergus Mac Leda and the sea monster Muirdris at Loch Rudraige.  After Fergus gains the ability to breath water from capturing water sprites he travels to see the beast and violates a geas laid on him by the sprite.  The beast is so horrific to behold his face is frozen in shock, a condition that by rights should deny him the kingship of Ulster.  His subjects like him so much they prevent him from seeing his reflection until one day an angry serving girl blurts the truth.  Ashamed, Fergus seeks Muirdris to slay it with an enchanted sword named Caladbolg.  He does so, dying of exhaustion after a fierce battle that turns the water red with their blood.

Spectres (airdrech) are known to the Irish stories. Finn Mac Cumaill encounters phantoms on the road that try to offer him horsemeat on rowan skewers and that beat him and his friends when he refuses.  Cu Chullain faces a horrific spectre as a boy when the noise of a nearby battle wakes him and he looks for Conchobar, his king.  He finds his king wounded in a ditch who asks why he is here when he could die from fright on the battlefield at night.  The word is also used to describe female valley bandits whose piercing shrieks and martial arts unusually get the better of Cu Chullain until Laeg his charioteer taunts him.
Well then, Cú Chulainn’, said Laeg, ‘doomed coward, one-eyed sprite, your fury and your valour have gone since it is spectres that ruin you’.
This awakens Cu Chullain's battle-fury and he predictably goes on to tear them a new one.  The description of bandits and other night-folk as 'supernatural' or dreaded is congruent with the desperate fear they inspired  as they would not observe the laws of hospitality that most Irish honoured. This continued even into the rise of Irish Christianity and the story of Saint Moling who escapes from a family of particularly foul fúath.

Shapeshifting hags and warriors are notable, the loathsome hag promising riches to those showing it affection is a known Celtic trope.  The warrior is less so, Úath mac Imomain (terror, son of great fear) lives under a loch and challenges three heroes to a beheading contest in the Feast of Bricriu prescient of Gawain and the Green Knight.  Of these heroes, only Cu Chullain will stick his neck out to receive the reply.  This exemplifies the value that the Irish place on courage and honour.

Finally the horror brought about by the confusion of war is described as a terror.  During the Tain bo Cuilange when the hosts of Medb appear, Cu Chullain raises a war shout answered by the goddess Nemain and by the spirits and goblins of the glen.  The resulting confusion causes the army to panic blindly and lose a hundred warriors.  Though it may seem like exaggeration, histories of war are full of examples where confusion in the ranks has led to allies attacking each other.

The Irish tell a mean story and their ghost stories are no exception. Many of the classic tropes found in RPGs have a bit of Irish in them and if you're looking for inspiration, you could do worse. 

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

the way of snow

This month's RPG Carnival is hosted by Questing GM who has assigned the quest of how to be a better GM.  We've recently had the worst snowfall for 30-odd years and it changed a number of things including my outlook on what makes a game experience fun.  Snowfall has a number of attributes that makes for fun game play and these can be adapted by an enterprising GM seeking to improve their game.

Choices - Being flexible enough to establish alternate actions and their rewarding outcomes makes a good GM.  Snow allows this by having multiple ways you can play.  A good GM does this by considering alternate ways to give essential information, having more than one way to resolve a plot arc or preparing alternate plans for the unexpected.  Players will love you if you are flexible enough to provide more than one option to pursue and collaboration is key to roleplaying games.  Equally if players make choices that enhance the game then encourage and reward that.

Consequences  - Playing in snow makes you cold.  Being hit by a snowball or falling off a sledge shows that the white stuff carries an element of risk.  And of course there's falling into snow - a hazard for some, how you make snow angels for others.  A good GM lets events build on and feed off previous player actions.     These can be good, bad or both and always interesting.  Tracy Hickman in XDM tells the story of his barbarian finally snapping under the weight of a super-paranoid party and smashing the door down.  This led to hours of hilarious consequences and helped liven up the game.

Consistent - Being consistent with your interactions, rulings and scheduling game sessions makes for happy players and a happier GM.  Within that consistency is a continuum of variation, intensity can be ramped up or down, levels of character immersion may shift but a baseline helps build trust within a group.  Just like snowfall over time means that you get deep, crisp and even environments to play in, consistent behaviour provides a gaming environment players can trust themselves enough to let go.  Consistency lets players commit to the game and build their characters.

Permission - Snow lets you do your own thing.  Making snowmen, having snowball fights, snow angels and sledging are all acceptable uses.  The GM is often seen as an entertainer - while it's true, this isn't directing a movie.  Critical Hits points out that the players have the power and that is one of the big strengths of tabletop RPGs - the players can influence things in ways that demand human mediation.  The players and the GM share the game experience and a smart GM allows the players to do some of the lifting, especially if it pertains to their character.  Equally, a smart GM must be ready to draw the line if a player gets a little too zealous giving their character ultimate power.

Persistence - Numerous games start out with a frenzied burst of preparation.  Then periods of adjustment as players make a contribution to the environment (or not - see Permission) and it's easy to let preparation slide.  Campaign Mastery waxes lyrical when asking GMs to be like snow - persistent preparation pays dividends and lets you adjust to games more rapidly than by doing extended sessions of prep where the probability of burnout or unproductive time increases the longer you stare at a blank page.  Persistence will also let you develop as a GM, remember 'to get to Carnegie you gotta practice!'

Pervasiveness - Snow is universally understood. The appeal of tabletop RPGs may be a little more arcane though the essential principle is a structured version of 'Let's Pretend'.  Game tables and play environments can vary greatly - there is no requirement for a specific board or pieces as long as a rough representation is there - dice can be simulated by paper chits, randomly moving your pencil over a paper grid of numbers or using your iPhone's dice rolling app.  This essential flexibility could not be experienced in gaming environments like World of Warcraft where you're tied to a computer with an Internet connection to play.

Transformation - Snow changes the environment for a time - probably a good thing because a gaming Ice Age would be... disturbing.   A GM can transform their gaming environment using simple props (handouts), set dressing (lighting, sound effects) and techniques (voices, facial expressions) so that players can find that space.  Game features like minigames can keep players on their toes.  One of the more memorable games I've played in involved a solitaire board in an Egyptian-themed dungeon.  The clues were written on the wall - the fewer balls left on the board, the fewer poisoned darts would be fired and if we won, no darts would be fired at all.  Suddenly, the players got very interested because of that change.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

inns & taverns - the taproot of all evil

The Taproot Of All Evil sits at the intersection of two narrow alleys. Blood Alley runs down a steep hill from a marketplace and is named as runaway market carts crush anyone in their path, leaving bloodstains on the walls and eerily cold spots.  The other is The Coppers, named for copperwrights and alchemists gleaning copper from ore and clay. Here cobbles are cracked and uneven, the mire seeping through them whetted by sour ale, chamberpot leavings and less identifiable humours. The air smells of acrid vitriol and human debris, born on a warm breeze from The Coppers that leaves in the mouth a taste of brimstone and bloody nose.

The Taproot is an angular three-storey tenement decorated with leering gargoyles holding pitted iron torch sconces and it's mottled sign, a stylised apple tree with a single red apple growing out a skull with open jaws next to a gold tankard on an umber field.  Inside, the decor is sparse and the foul smells outside are diminished by the smell of smoke, alcohol and bodies.  Spherical tallow lamps burn with greenish-orange flames that give the place an eerie cast.  The floor is flagstoned and strewn with sawdust and sand. It supports heavy tables made of iron-bound wood and converted ale barrels though seating is difficult to find for The Taproot is busy with patrons who often stand around drinking and talking.

The walls are adorned with dark slate panels painted with barbarians fighting off wild beasts, scantily-clad devil women and gods in revelry.  Ironically, the clientele are less iconic.  They range from beggars by the fire, daringly drunken young apprentices, traders needing a drink, grime-handed hired labourers as well as itinerant rogues and streetwalkers between opportunities.  It's owner is Vechi Julitura, a willowy yet wrinkled tiefling woman with pitchblende eyes and small fangs.  She is rarely seen in the daytime, usually working in the downstairs distillery or upstairs on her accounts.  Customers are left to the tender mercies of ever-changing bar staff, most tend to work very short contracts.  Despite this the patrons are usually polite around them.

Her ownership has been for as long as anyone can remember, her accent is naggingly familiar and her speech sprinkled with terms like 'jink', 'cutter' and 'deadbook'.  It's jokingly said she's mother to every rogue as none ply their trade here.  Actions bringing the watch here meet the ire of all the rogues here, a lot of trouble for relatively little coin.  For a pair of silver pieces, Vechi will put out word that work is being sought. For a handful of gold, she'll hire out a room with a circular table and six chairs upstairs for private 'meetings' for an evening. This brings a mixture of mercenaries and adventurers to do business with each other - these are often quiet, intense affairs but all violence is taken outside.

Available drinks in order of ascending potency are a full-bodied red smoked ale, a thick stout with caramel tones and a tart yet potent pale cider bought from the hilltop market.  House specialties include a very potent genever, and a crude absinth made of anise, wormwood and other herbs steeped in rough white wine called by locals 'green vitriol'. This last is usually plied as a rite of passage for wishing to prove their mettle though some patrons get a taste for it.  Though minstrels have occasionally performed here, few are encouraged to stay as Vechi distrusts them - more than one minstrel has performed badly enough to clear the place.

Instead the patrons sometimes break into drinking songs ranging from the ribald to the obscure as a number of the beggars are former war veterans.  The name was chosen by Vechi after an altercation with an aasimar paladin over the slate murals.  As such The Taproot Of All Evil has occasionally borne zealous preachers standing outside though the chamberpots and runaway carts tend to discourage all but the most determined.  While there are dark hearts who drink here, much of The Taproot's sinister reputation is the result of a shrewd campaign of gossip, innuendo and outright lies told to give it a much darker reputation.  It's infamy is assured by every mercenary or adventurer who travels and it's fame grows in the retelling...

Thursday, 11 March 2010

recession-proof gaming VII - mission to game

Is that light at the end of the financiapocalyptic tunnel?  Maybe.  Here's some more stuff anyway.

Browser Tools
  • hack/ has produced some neat RPG bookmarklets.  I've mentioned bookmarklets as game tools before and these provide dice rollers and character generators for D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Hackmaster, Classic Traveller and WHFRP.
  • Dino Pirates of Ninja Island combines dinosaurs, pirates, ninjas, monkeys and robots with adventure into an intriguing whole.  A Creative Commons license lets you add to the game setting - the rules and lots of content is free.  There's also an introductory adventure for $6.  Courtesy of Scratch Factory.
  • Engines & Empires is a free PDF steampunk sourcebook for Labyrinth Lord courtesy of Relative Entropy Games - the Relative Entropy site also has free resources and nicely priced print copies.
GM Resources
  • Those running d20/OGL games will like The d20NPCs wiki which has a searchable list of pre-generated NPCs for both fantasy and modern games.  
  • More d20 fantasy generators are found at Myth Weavers including an updated version of the random dungeon generator originally coded by Jamis Buck.
  • Dream Weaved Worlds offers some generators for barrel and crate contents,  name generators and the taverns & inns random encounter generator as well as d20 fantasy and sci-fi resources.
  • What's in a name?  Chris Pound's Language Machines provides names for people of many types including Barsoomian and Tsolyani, Dying Earth spell names, martial arts moves worthy of Feng Shui or Exalted and has a wonderful list of name/word generation resources.
  • CrystalBallSoft has a random fantasy city generator which can handle any settlement you'd find in the older editions of the DMG (thorp, hamlet etc.)  It outputs based on D&D data and takes into account some nice touches.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

the ebon zikkuract

Ancient when the world was still young, the zikkuract was a weathered step pyramid made of black basalt blocks hewn by hands far greater than those of mere humans.  A simple ziggurat of it's dimensions would take a priest-king's slave army generations to finish.  Yet the fact of it's existence is a shadow of the great wonder that exists today.  After a dream sent to them by the gods, the hierophants placed at the capstone a starstone block enchanted by ritual and invoked ancient, incomprehensible powers causing mirrors to smoulder and shadows to run like ink.  When libation was made, dark shapes loomed amid the congregation for an instant, plucking the faithless out in an eye-blink leaving only a few drops of blood on their neighbour. The ziggurat trembled and for a moment, all was as blood.  Then everything was back, and everything had changed..

The apex of the ziggurat was plunged into shadow yet shafts of light came from each side and from above.  These illuminated dark basalt walls and a ceiling yet each wall and the ceiling had a stair sunken into it, leading away.  The stair in the ceiling was almost a mirror of the apex of the ziggurat.  A hierophant realised that the walls and ceiling were in fact the apex of another ziggurat. Curious he touched one of the walls and found himself lying on it, when he stood up, he was perpendicular to the wall and parallel to the apex where his fellow worshippers watched in awe.  He moved from one wall to the next, as he touched them his body fell to the new floor.  Finally he walked up to the edge of the ceiling and touched it, then he stood up on it and hailed his peers from above them, his hair and robes unperturbed though he was seemingly upside down.  The hierophants named the phenomenon zikkuract, blending the ancient name for ziggurat with an arcane term for a shape that exists in many places.

On his return, warrior-slaves were dispatched to investigate each of the walls and the ceiling.  When the priest-king and the hierophants left they saw the basalt block atop the ziggurat and marvelled.  Scholars were sent with them and reported that the hierophant was correct - each wall was the apex of another ziggurat and that the stairs led to different places.  The northern wall revealed an icy ruined city amid tundra where the air was thin and three moons hung in the sky.  The eastern wall revealed an abandoned city in a bright desert lit by two suns that punished any warrior clad in metal.  The southern wall revealed a creeper-choked ruin in a lush jungle under a green-tinged sun.  The western wall revealed a lone black ziggurat on a basalt causeway over wine-dark seas.  The ceiling led to a great city with a smoking sun overhead and the horizon curving upward in every direction.  Each of the ziggurats now appeared to have a great basalt block atop it forcing anyone seeking entrance to use the stairway.

The priest-king ordered further exploration.  He realised these places could make his kingdom wealthy and make him great.  The hierophants warned of dangers from the other places yet the priest-king knew that if he did not explore, when word of this wonder spread then his enemies would seek to conquer him.  He would call for heroes to explore these places, sending soldiers and scholars to claim these lands and envoys to treat with any ruler who they found.  The priest-king and hierophants decreed only the worthy would be chosen and this led to much intrigue.  Spies for other priest-kings reported great activity at the site of an ancient ruin where a black basalt block had impossibly appeared atop an ancient ziggurat.  Soldiers and scholars were travelling in and out of the ziggurat.  This was a matter of great import for the other priest-kings who sought to know why the gods had chosen this priest-king for favour?

(inspired by this post by Planet Algol who is hitting them out the park at the moment).

Saturday, 6 March 2010

three things: inflictions

This content is provided under the terms of the OGL.

Lachrymose Mask - This ivory tragedy mask is intended as a punishment for errant spellcasters and overly shrewish or loud conversationalists and magically adjusts to fit any humanoid head. When donned, the mask fastens itself with arcane lock. The mask prevents all speech and rewards attempts to speak by slowly drowning the wearer in magical tears. Attempting to speak causes the wearer 1d6 subdual damage and forces them to make a Constitution check (DC10 +1 per round) or be forced to cough up the salty water filling their lungs. Creatures that can communicate without speech do not incur the effects of the mask.
Market Cost: 4000gp.
Creation:Create Wondrous Item, arcane lock, create water.

Rod of Burning Remembrance - This slim rod is made from a ferula plant and is capped with spiked iron tips.  It is treated as a +1 club and usable by any class able to use one.  It has three additional functions, using them is equivalent to drawing a weapon.
  • Once a day it can provide a +2 to any Intelligence-based skill check.
  • Once a day it can inflict 1d8+4 fire damage with a successful melee touch attack
  • Once a day it can with a successful melee touch attack cause the target to suffer the effects of a symbol of pain (-4 to attacks, skill and ability checks) for 10 minutes.
This rod is popular with evil characters, especially torturers and schoolmasters.  The relatively nondescript appearance of the item is valued by urbane characters who prefer discretion to blatant displays of power.
Market Value: 5,600gp
Creation: Create Rod, flame blade, fox's cunning, symbol of pain

Slaver's Eye - This gem appears to be a hemispherical cabochon-cut diamond  with a dark core reminiscent of an eye's iris.  If touched to the forehead it will cling there. The slaver's eye grants the person who placed it on the recipient's forehead the ability to use a geas/quest spell up to 10 minutes after the slaver's eye is attached. If the recipient refuses, they suffer the usual effects of non-compliance with geas/quest and strange dark veins appear around the gem as symptoms, the more intense the loss, the further the veins spread.  Open-ended tasks can be granted as usual and last for 10 days.  Once the task is completed, the gem falls off, ready to be used again.  To forcibly remove the slaver's eye requires a break enchantment spell, the presence of an antimagic shell, a limited wish or even greater spell with similar effects. Attempts to remove the gem by normal means fail and may damage the wearer at DM's discretion.
Market Value:  6,000gp
Creation: Caster level 11th, Create Wondrous Item, geas/quest

Thursday, 4 March 2010

3:16 - alien races

I think 3:16 is a wonderful game. Of course you can add more to it if you want and looking at the creatures I came up with a few more for Troopers to encounter. With Obsidian Portal now offering support and a number of you owning it as you donated to DriveThruRPG's Haiti appeal, there's really no excuse not to run a game, is there?

A group of colonists defying the authority of Terra. These could be criminals trying to outrun the law or settlers rejecting Terran life with it's enforced sterilisation and indolence.  They may remind Troopers of family, hated rivals or even themselves.

All the inhabitants are identical; they may have a group mind or have radically different mindsets.  They can tell each other apart without any problem but the Troopers won't at first. How do the Troopers deal with killing the same person over and over and over? Perhaps they remind the Troopers of someone?

Energy Forms
These creatures have unlocked themselves from matter.  They may appear as angelic figures of light, raging pillars of fire or invisible monsters revealed in the pulses of an energy rife.  Give them a personality to match their current state of being and a completely alien outlook.

Horses, donkeys or zebra are the base creature.  Herd animals working together for self-defence with a strong leader.  They may have evolved to humanoid form or feral animals willing to kick Troopers to death over territory.

From mushroom men to roiling masses of slime mold.  Sentience may be indicated by changing colours, rough speech or even telepathy.  Their spores may cause hallucinations, be poisonous or infect the flesh of Troopers to turn them into zombie-like carriers.

The race may need another body to keep it alive or just to improve it's quality of life. Parasites may be from one or more races. Troopers who use a Weakness may be captured and risk infection and being Killed may actually mean being turned into a host…

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

A 4E chocolate box - review: underdark

I've been looking forward to this.  The Underdark is a wonderful environment for games and taps into the essence of D&D. What I didn't expect was a lavish campaign setting in it's own right that gives the setting the mythic quality that it truly deserves, re-invigorates classic locations and brings back some old friends. Drow fans will be delighted at Erelhei-Cinlu's return and Torog, The King Who Crawls is fleshed out - not only do exarchs provide challenges on the way, you can also meet The King at 30th-level if your Dungeon Master so wishes.

Underdark provides plenty of crunch for your buck. New terrain types, combat effects and monster themes (featured in Dungeon Master's Guide 2) as well as combat effects are organised around the different parts of the Underdark.  The monster section at the end not only has new monsters but also suggested monsters (there's your ecology) and where to find them.  This is balanced with lots of information on roleplaying attitudes of Underdark denizens, what surface dwellers know, roleplaying the psychological impact of living underground and reminding you of what is best in Underdark life.  It also brings in where the Underdark bleeds over into the Feywild, the Shadowfell and the Elemental Chaos. This book has epic scope and it does a very good job of bringing it together - it's like a box of chocolates. You know it's going to be nice with maybe a couple you'll definitely offer to a friend instead.

That's a lot of ground to cover in 160 pages yet I got a sense fewer encounters - maybe one encounter per chapter - and slightly smaller chunks of art would have given enough room for the Feydark and especially the Shadowdark to come across as more than milk Underdark and dark Underdark. Both sections could have been fleshed out into full sourcebooks (similar to the recent Dragonborn book) or even web enhancements.  Still I can dream, right?  The other peculiarity was you get lots on Torog and his exarchs, not so much on his clerics and worshippers - people you might expect to meet on the way to Maelbrathyr for example. While different DMs will have different takes, information on typical examples of worship by specific races (e.g. humans, dwarves, troglodytes) would have been helpful.

For those new to the game, Underdark opens some wonderful doors and promises vistas of adventure. More experienced hands will love what's been done to the old stomping ground and note how the advice in DMG2 has been applied yet may feel there were missed opportunities to really open the setting up. Overall, it has something for everyone and maybe I'm being greedy in hoping everything is to my taste. A Bucknard's box of infinite chocolates would be perfect. Underdark is a quality four-tray deluxe Belgian selection delivered with panache by Rob Heinsoo.  More like this please.

Metrics:(out of 5) Overall: 4 (Artwork: 4, Crunch: 5, Fluff: 4)
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