Monday, 27 June 2016

Almost a review: Basilisk Goggles and Wishing Wells

Well, this is a new direction for me. Derek Holland (whose d-infinity blog can be found here) asked me if I'd review Basilisk Goggles and Wishing Wells, his big book of magic items and stuff for Labyrinth Lord, and I asked if a rambly, impressionistic piece loosely inspired by reading his book would be OK, and he said yes. So never let it be said that I don't deliver what I've promised.

In the interests of full disclosure, I received a free (electronic) copy of this book for review.

It looks like this.

So. From its earliest days, D&D has traditionally provided its players which giant, alphabetical lists of three things: spells, monsters, and magic items. Of the three, magic items have typically generated the least interest. Everyone loves monsters, because they exert an active pressure on the game-world around them, creating those threats and obstacles and challenges and opportunities out of which a game of D&D is primarily composed. Spells give PCs tools for dealing with those challenges, and even in games where the spells available to the PCs are chosen by the GM (or the dice) instead of by the players, it's still players who actively select which spells their characters will memorise and cast at each point in the game. By comparison, magic items are weirdly passive: PCs have no control over where and when they find them, and their benefits are usually so obvious that there's no reason not to use as much magical loot as you can get your hands on. 'Do we attack the troll?' is a real question, the sort of thing a bunch of PCs might well have a legitimate argument over; but 'do we take its magic sword after killing it?' is pretty much a no-brainer. And then, once you've got it, 'should we use it?' is usually a similarly empty question: is it cursed? If not, then, yes, of course you should. Who should wield it? Whoever will get the most benefit out of it. 'Should we risk attacking the troll, or take our chances with the zombies in the other tunnel?' That's a real dilemma. 'Should I memorise sleep or charm person today?' Also a real dilemma. 'Should I wield my sword +1 or my sword +2?' just doesn't have the same weight to it.

Perhaps D&D just got off on the wrong foot with magic items to begin with. Sword +1, shield +2, chainmail +3, ring of protection, gauntlets of ogre power... they're just straight upgrades, things you bolt onto your character in the same way that you might install a more efficient engine into a car, or slot an improved graphics card into your PC. Potion of invisibility, wand of fireballs, scroll of raise dead... they're a bit better, because at least you have to decide when the optimal time to use them will be, but basically they're still just ammunition. Fortunately, there's another tradition of magic items in D&D, one which was especially visible in the earlier editions of the game before damage output in combat became the only assumed focus of play: magic items which don't just let you do the same things as before except more efficiently, but which actually open up weird new options for how to approach the game world. The Rod of Lordly Might, for example: a mace which can turn into a sword, an axe, a ladder, a compass, or a battering ram, depending on which button you press. A ring of water walking. A potion that lets you change your colour like a chameleon. These items don't just give you bigger numbers on your character sheet: they allow you to interact with your environment in qualitatively different ways.

Basilisk Goggles and Wishing Wells is a big book full of new magic items: over 570 of them, apparently. It should be compatible with almost any flavour of OSR D&D, largely because it's pretty light on rules: so light on rules, in fact, that it sometimes don't bother to provide any game mechanics at all for the effects which it describes. The reason it's so light on rules is because most of the items it describes barely interact with the rules system at all: the point of them is not to give you mechanical benefits, but to open up new possibilities. They are the kind of items that a character, faced with what Arnold K. calls 'OSR-style challenges', might find themselves describing as they mutter to themselves: 'You know what would really help, here? A ______ that would let us _________....'

How about this for an example: gloves that allow you to swim through cloud and fog (although not clear air) as though it was water. I love this magic item. It opens up an obvious benefit (movement in three dimensions), but with an obvious limitation (only if there's loads of water vapour in the area), and consequently with an obvious risk (if you're five hundred feet up when the cloud you're 'swimming' in dissipates, you're going to go splat). This combination thus challenges the players to engineer situations which will allow them to exploit the opportunities it offers to best advantage. Will the gloves let you 'swim' up through the air to get that valuable gem off the cavern roof? Yes, but only if you can figure out a way to fill the cave with fog, first: got any ideas for how to do that? Or switch it round, give them to an enemy, and watch the PCs wrack their brains for ways to get rid of all that mist while their foe is swimming around in mid-air: temperature alterations? Giant fans? At every point, the limitations places on the item open up opportunities for ingenious and intelligent play which would simply not exist if you'd just handed out a ring of flying instead.

Here's another one: 'shadow dust' which, when sprinkled on a surface, makes the affected object insubstantial to a depth of 10' while in total darkness, but solid again when light falls on it. The description mentions the possibility of using it to trap people inside the ground: put it on the floor, lure people onto it in the dark so that they fall through the now-insubstantial floor, then shine a light on it and leave them entombed within the rock, at least for as long as the light keeps shining. But they don't die in there, they just can't move... so how long can you keep that light on? If you interpret 'surface' more liberally, then the uses multiply further: throw the stuff all over your enemy's armour and weapons, then douse your lanterns and fight them in the dark, leaving them unarmed and unprotected! An item like this turns something which is normally just an assumed background element - the presence or absence of light in each location - into a tactical consideration with new relevance, potentially leading to some tense and/or comical scenes in which the PCs stumble around in pitch darkness, waiting for their enemies to fall afoul of the shadow dust traps they've just laid...

Items like this - and there are a lot of them in here - show Basilisk Goggles at its best. Bracers that let you stretch your arms like Mr Fantastic. An item that lets you catch bolts of lightning with your bare hands and then wield them as crackling, electrical whips. A cloak which brings your shadow to life to run errands for you. A stone which explodes into a huge wave of water when exposed to great heat. What I love about them is that their usefulness depends primarily on the intelligence of your players, which means that they'll feel really pleased with themselves when they come up with some bizarre and ingenious way to put them to work. There's no satisfaction to be gained from working out that your sword +2 is better in a fight than your sword +1, and only slightly more from deducing that the potion of gaseous form is meant to be used as a way of gaining access to the vampire's hidden room, which you can see but not reach through its spy-hole; it's too pre-programmed, too predictable, too much like a 'puzzle' in a CRPG. But just giving players a whole bunch of weird tools to use, and a whole bunch of weird obstacles to overcome, and trusting them to figure out something is one of the things that's truly unique about tabletop RPGs, something that they can do which Warcraft and its ilk really, really can't.

Other 'items' listed here are really encounter ideas. Huge heavy mushrooms wielded as clubs by goblins, which release a cloud of confusion-inducing spores whenever they're used to hit someone; that's an encounter, a way to spice up an otherwise-dull bout of goblin whacking. Iron violets, which look beautiful, but whose petals are as sharp as knives; that's an encounter, too, an obstacle that the PCs need to first identify (hopefully without the loss of too many fingers), and then work out a way to navigate without getting cut into chutney. In both cases, though, there's also a resource to be gained: and there's no reason that the PCs can't take the mushrooms and harvest the knife-flowers for themselves, for use in some suitably devious fashion later on. Honestly, the things that could be done with knife-sharp flower petals hardly bear thinking about.

As is probably obvious, I like Basilisk Goggles a great deal, but it would be misleading for me to suggest that it simply consists of 136 pages of items like this; I've just picked them out because they're my favourites. What it really is is a miscellany, a huge heap of magic item ideas, which gives me the strong impression that very little has been left out; there are items here both strange and obvious, some silly and some sensible, some well-thought-out and some rather less so, some clearly defined and some willfully vague. Take the Amulet of the Turtle God; when used during a rainstorm, it allows the wearer to turn all the resulting mud within 100' into 'monstrous fish and reptiles', whom they are able to command until the rain stops falling, at which point they collapse back into mud. That's a nice idea for a scene... but how many monsters? How big are they? How dangerous? Can you call up alligators? Velociraptors? Godzilla? All this is left to the GM's discretion, based on their 'storytelling needs'; that's fine as far as it goes, but means that this isn't so much a 'magic item' as a suggestion for a scene you might one day like to include in a game. Others are joke items (a coin that grows to huge size when stolen, squashing the thief flat), story ideas (a food moss which grows anywhere, on anything, causing massive population explosions among nearby animals and monsters as they now have an effectively unlimited food supply), or just odd (a spiral which makes you grow to 10,000 times your normal size, which would make the average human about twice the height of Mount Everest and something like four miles across at the shoulders). Some seem very powerful, like the adhesive armour which makes any weapon or monster that hits its wearer stick to it (no save) until the command word is uttered; others seem oddly low-powered, like a broach which lets you grow horns (not magic horns, just regular ones) for three rounds once per hour. Different things appeal to different people, and I'm confident that just about anyone will be able to find some magic item ideas they really like in here somewhere; but it's very likely that you'll need to do a bit of digging first.

Is it worth the $5 asking price? If you're the kind of person who likes having big lists of old-school-style ideas to pick and choose from, and doesn't mind doing a bit of work to fit them into your campaign, then yes, I think so. It's a very bloggy sort of book, the kind of book that you might end up with if someone ran a blog where they posted a magic item idea every day for two years and then published their collected posts; a mixture of the inspired and the random and the clever and the funny and the just plain odd. Sometimes it runs off on weird tangents, like when it details seven different kinds of magic collars you can put on your alchemical homunculi. Some of the items are homages to other media, like with the demonic funnel-shaped hat that's clearly based on the ones in Bosch's 'Cutting the Stone' and 'The Temptation of St Anthony', or the amulet that lets you re-enact Forbidden Planet by calling forth monsters... from the Id! There's a decanter of endless water whose only setting is '11'. There's a Rolling Stone. There's a shiny parasitic insect which protects you from gaze attacks, but only while it's currently eating your face. A game which tried to use all this stuff would be surreal and bizarre and probably borderline unplayable, but I think that almost any game would probably benefit from using some of it. I almost never use other people's magic items in my games - whenever I see a bunch of magic items in a book I immediately start skimming past them to get to the monsters - and even I scribbled down notes on about fifty of these as ideas I might want to use at some point. Personally, as RPG books go, I think ten cents per useable idea is a pretty good rate of exchange.

Besides. Funnel hat!

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Romantic Fantasy Revisited 4: So what does this look like in practise?

"Flower" of the North:

Finally: the last post of the series. Having explained what I think 'romantic fantasy' is and could be, why you might want it in an RPG, and how you might incorporate it into your D&D games in practical terms, I'll now try to explain in what sense the setting I've been developing for 'Against the Wicked City' might be considered an example of romantic fantasy, as well as what a more 'traditional' D&D adventure might look like if it was translated into a more self-consciously 'romantic' style.

An anonymous comment on the previous post asked whether what I was calling 'romantic fantasy' was basically the same thing as what Armchair Gamer, in an thread from back in 2012, called 'Paladins and Princesses' D&D. In that thread, this style of D&D is described as being 'romantic', but also as being 'a "clean" fantasy, with shining castles and good kings, friendly innkeepers and helpful travellers'. ATWC has none of those things; instead, it's a setting full of smoke-blackened towers, awful tyrants, miserable refugees, and fearful, suspicious caravanserai-keepers who may or may not be planning to sell you out to the secret police. All of these are trappings that we've come to associate with 'grimdark' fantasy-horror settings, in which life is cheap and horrible and usually meaningless. So why do I call it 'romantic fantasy', instead?

Well, odd though it may seem at first glance, ATWC as-written is actually all about love.

Let me put it like this: the Wicked City represents a failure state. It is meant to communicate an idea of what can happen when, under conditions of extreme social stress, the failure of human beings to love one another reaches epidemic proportions. So at the heart of the whole system you have the Wicked King, who embodies inhumanity; then beneath him you have the Secret Police, who worship that inhumanity; then the Ministries and the Cobweb, who serve it; then the people of the city, who endure it; and finally, right on the edges, you have people like the Red Brotherhood and the Rubble Tribes, who resist it. The symptom of this inhumanity, this failure to love, is dehumanisation: that's why the Secret Police, the Cobweb aristocracy, and the Skull Wearers all wear masks, why the Secret Police have given up their names for codenames, why the Men Without Faces are literally faceless, why the Steel Aspirants hunger to replace their bodies with clockwork, why the bodies of the Maimed have been warped by their afflictions, why the Wicked King may actually be completely bodiless, and so on. So to be against the Wicked City is to be against all that, against this miserable grinding system of oppression which keeps turning people into literal and figurative monsters. In a more traditional fantasy game the assumption would be that the way to fight this would be to make a long list of all the bad people, and then kill them: massacre the King's Men, massacre the Cobweb families, massacre the Ministers, massacre the Secret Police, and so on. You can totally play it like that if you want to. But in writing it, I've also tried to keep open the possibility of approaching these as social problems, requiring social solutions.

He's not really such a bad guy, once you get to know him...

It would have been easy for me to write the Rubble Tribes as frothing, murderous savages. It would have been easy for me to write the process of Maiming as involving irreversible spiritual corruption. It would have been easy for me to write the Skull Wearer rite as permanently transforming its victim into a monster. It would have been easy for me to write the King's Men as brutal, sadistic enforcers, and the Cobweb Families as irredeemable pits of ancestral evil. In fact, in every case, this would have been the traditional D&D approach, because by writing them in those ways I would have turned them into guilt-free targets for slaughter by the PCs. But, instead, I wrote Maiming and Skull-Wearering as curable conditions, the King's Men as a cowardly rabble, the Rubble Tribes as weird and suspicious but basically pretty decent, the Cobweb Families as damaged products of a dysfunctional social environment, and so on. A Murder Harlot is just a Jewelled Fan Dancer who's lost faith in everything except sex and violence. Every serpent-folk drug peddler could just as easily be a healer, instead. Maybe even the Men Without Faces could be saved if you could somehow give them their faces and identities back. (It's probably too late for the Hounds, though.) Maybe the only reason the Man With Stones For Eyes is so horrible is because of the way the world looks to him through those frozen rocks in his eye-sockets, and if he could get his real eyes back he might finally understand the horror he's become and stop being so vile to everyone. (Then again, though, maybe not.) And, yes, sure, you can just kill them all if you want to, and maybe that's sometimes even going to be the right and moral thing to do: it's certainly hard to argue that the world wouldn't be a better place without the Men Without Faces in it. But the other options are always there as well.

This extends out to the rest of the setting, too. It's why I wrote the Pig-Men and the Shurale as dangerous, but also stupid and easy to trick: I want them to be the kind of monsters that can be outwitted by cunning children, rather than the kind that can only be dealt with via overwhelming military force. It's why skull chieftains can be disposed of non-violently by reminding them that they're dead. It's why most of the encounters on the random encounter tables involve weird social interactions with the possible threat of violence, rather than just 'this thing turns up and attacks!' I've tried to write all this stuff in ways that will make it useful in traditional D&D games as well, and I do want to emphasise that I don't think anyone is 'doing it wrong' if they borrow something I've written for use in a standard kill-'em-all dungeon bash; that would be pure hypocrisy on my part, given the number of such games I've enjoyed playing and running in the past. But the setting-as-written should also support games in which every step towards the Wicked King's throne room is marked by friendships forged and souls redeemed from despair and evil, rather than just hacked-up corpses and trails of blood.

As all this is still probably a bit abstract, I'll try to finish up with an example: notes towards a romantic fantasy rewrite of what may very well be the most famous and influential D&D adventure ever written, B2 The Keep On the Borderlands. I assume everyone knows the set-up: there's a keep on a wild borderland region, a bunch of different clans of feuding monsters live in the 'caves of chaos' nearby, concealed within the caves is the Chapel of Evil Chaos, and the priest in the keep pretends to be helpful but is actually an agent of Evil Chaos hoping to lure people into the caves and then murder them when they're at their most vulnerable. While there are some opportunities for roleplay and negotiation, the adventure as a whole clearly assumes that most encounters will be resolved through violence, with most of the monsters attacking on sight. So how could we turn something like this into a romantic fantasy scenario?
  • The Keep: The keep is a stronghold of civilisation, for better and for worse. Its people have mostly managed to maintain  a policy of uneasy coexistence with the creatures in the Caves of Chaos, but recently there's been an outbreak of attacks, thefts, raids, disappearances, and kidnappings, and the inhabitants - goaded on by the fake priest - are increasingly demanding that the castellan's soldiers be sent out to slaughter these degenerate savages once and for all. Uneasy at these demands, and suspecting that something else may be going on, the castellan asks the PCs (as a notionally-neutral third party) to investigate. 
  • The Shrine of Evil Chaos: In the original, anyone who touches the relics in the Shrine of Evil Chaos must save or 'become a servant of chaos and evil', compelled to guard the chapel forever. So that's our first change: to make explicit that the adepts, priest, and torturer at the shrine aren't really villains, just unfortunates who have fallen under the spell of the relics. (They were, of course, led to the chapel by the fake priest in the keep.) If the relics could be destroyed, they would return to normal, and be horrified by the things that they have done while under the spell. They all have families at the Keep, who are worried sick about them, and desperate to see their loved ones returned.
  • The Fake Priest: The fake priest at the keep, and his two acolytes, clearly aren't under the spell, as they're able to leave the shrine at will. So they're the real villains, individuals who have voluntarily devoted themselves to Evil Chaos. They can be kept as 'pure' bad guys; PCs hate being betrayed by people they thought were their allies, so it's probably best that they don't need to feel any guilt whatsoever about hacking them down after their inevitable change of sides. The Priest probably started worshipping Evil Chaos because of some horrible trauma in his backstory, but at this stage he's probably too far gone to be redeemed. 
  • The Goblins: In the original, the hobgoblins have a secret door into the goblin storage chamber, which they use to steal all the best stuff that the goblins loot from the surrounding area. As written, this is basically just an excuse for a surprise encounter; the PCs are hanging around in the storage chamber, checking if anything in it is worth stealing, when - surprise! - the wall opens up and a bunch of hobgoblins walk in. But this can easily be upgraded to the primary motivation for the goblin tribe: all the food they had laid up for the winter has just vanished from their storeroom, and now they're raiding the surrounding area because they know that without extra food supplies they're all going to starve. Emphasise how scrawny and desperate the goblins seem; have people at the keep mention that the goblins have never raided like this before; let the PCs discover that the only things the goblins ever seem to be interested in stealing is food. The PCs should quickly work out what the real motivation behind the goblin raids is, and be able to defuse the situation either by taking their food back from the hobgoblins, or by securing them some other food supply elsewhere.
  • The Ogre: The original specifically highlights this as an encounter which can be avoided non-violently; the ogre only fights for the goblins because they pay him, and will stop fighting if the PCs make him a better offer. So let's make him a rather dim, almost amiable figure: greedy, amoral, easily bribed, willing to break heads in exchange for a good meal, but bearing no real malice towards anyone. Provided he gets good food and regular pay, he'd be just as happy working for the keep as for the goblins, and could potentially be a real asset to its defenders.
  • The Orcs: In the original, there are two rival tribes of orcs who are being manipulated into working together by their leaders, who are holding secret meetings in a concealed room. So let's play on that: the orcs aren't normally aggressive, but they've been manipulated into taking aggressive action by their leaders, who have engineered a situation in which each tribe believes that only a constant policy of aggressive action can stop the other tribe from thinking they're weak and attempting to exterminate them. The leaders, in turn, are being manipulated by the Priest of Evil Chaos, who has fed them lies that it is only their shows of aggression which are keeping the men of the keep from marching out and killing the lot of them. (In fact, the reverse is true; the men of the keep had previously been willing to put up with them, but now their tolerance is waning fast.) If the tribes realise that they've been tricked, they'll turn on their leaders. If the leaders realise that they've been tricked, they'll turn on the priest. (Also, one of the orc leaders should be female, and the two of them should have a whole forbidden romance going on.)
  • The Kobolds: They're just kobolds, man. They want to be left alone. They're very suspicious of outsiders due to prior bad experiences - everyone thinks they can push the little guys around - but could potentially be enlisted as allies if persuaded of the threat posed by the Shrine of Evil Chaos.
  • The Hobgoblins: In the original, the hobgoblin chief is described as being accompanied by 'four large female hobgoblins, each equal to a male', presumably his wives. They've also imprisoned a merchant and his wife. So let's work with this: the hobgoblin chief is a figurehead, real power within the tribe resting with his four large and warlike wives. The chief is desperate for domestic harmony, and will do whatever his wives tell him to, but they're currently deadlocked; two are staunch hobgoblin supremacist traditionalists who argue for an aggressive policy (stealing more from the goblins, eating the prisoners, war with the keep), while the other two are realists who argue for a more conciliatory tone (ransoming the prisoners, leaving the goblins alone for now, maintaining peace with the keep). One of the latter pair has even struck up a kind of friendship with the imprisoned merchant's wife, and is trying to work out a way of getting her out alive. PCs who see to it that the less aggressive faction win out can ensure the safe return of their prisoners (for a suitable ransom), and maybe even forge some kind of peace treaty between the hobgoblins and the keep in order to avoid further violence. 
  • The Bugbears: In the original, these are a weird bunch; they pretend to be friendly, offer meat kebabs to the PCs, and then stab them with the skewers. They also have loads of slaves, including a mad hero and a rebel bugbear. But why on earth would anyone fall for their trick, unless they had prior reason to believe the bugbears would be friendly and helpful? So let's rewrite this slightly: until recently, their cave really was a safe haven for travellers, and the bugbears offered food and shelter to creatures of all races in exchange for a fair payment. Then their current chief staged a coup and enslaved all their 'guests', as well as the previous chief (the 'rebel' bugbear in the slave pen); since then, everyone who's come seeking shelter has also been enslaved. The bugbears are very divided on the merits of their sudden career change from innkeepers to slavers, but their new chief has the backing of both the minotaur and the priests of Evil Chaos, both of whom they fear terribly. If he was deprived of this support, then some of the bugbears could probably be persuaded to side with their old chief again, especially if he was backed by a slave revolt.
  • The Minotaur: He just likes eating people. The new bugbear chief has promised him lots of slaves to eat in exchange for his support.
  • The Gnolls: These guys are a pretty boring bunch in the original, but their chief does fight alongside his two sons and four wives, which suggests that at least he's a family man. There's also secret tunnel which no-one knows about, connecting his room to the Shrine of Evil Chaos. So I'm gonna go for a minor rewrite and say that the fake priest does know about it, and has been using it to manipulate the gnoll chief into more and more aggressive acts via illusions, ventriloquism, 'messages from the gods', and so on. The gnoll chief has always been a bloodthirsty sort, so he didn't need much prompting; but he does genuinely love his family, and if he sees that his actions are placing his wives or sons in danger, he can be made to reconsider his recent choices, especially if confronted with evidence that all the 'omens' he's been seeing recently might have a less-than-divine origin. 
  • The Mad Hermit: The original says that 'The DM may choose to have the Mad Hermit approach the group on friendly terms, claiming to be a holy man seeking goodness in nature - perhaps he actually believes that at times' - but then insists that he attacks as soon as he gets a chance. Let's flip that: he really was a holy man seeking goodness in nature, but when he confronted the fake priest about his frequent visits to the Shrine of Evil Chaos, the priest stabbed him with a poisoned dagger. The hermit's pet lion saved his life, but the poison has destroyed his mind, so now he just wanders about babbling. The lion is very protective, and attacks anyone who looks like they might harm him. If his mind is restored, he can reveal much about the priest's actions to date.
So, there you have it: the Caves of Chaos rewritten as a talk-'em-up, in which the whole looming tragedy of conflict between the humanoids and the keep is basically the work of one scheming bastard who has been playing on the worst tendencies of all those around him in order to generate (evil) chaos, and whose whole tapestry of manipulation and deceit can be unpicked one link at a time. For the full romantic fantasy effect you'd want to rewrite the keep as well, filling it with potential PC love interests (including non-heterosexual love interests) and people with really amazing hair, but I figure this post is already long enough!

So. Romantic fantasy. It's a thing. Your group might like it, at least in moderation. I'd never claim that it's inherently 'better' than any other kind of play; but if you fancy a bit of a change from your PCs just stabbing everyone, you might try giving it a whirl...

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Romantic Fantasy Revisited 3: How do I use this in a game of D&D?

Man, I need to get this series finished. I promised Derek Holland a review of his magic item book!

OK: part three. In my last two posts, I discussed what I mean by 'romantic fantasy' (although Yora has now started calling it 'Hope and Heroism' instead), and why someone might potentially want to emulate it - or at least parts of it - in a game of D&D. In this post, I'll address the next obvious question: how?

Let's say that you and your group are totally up for a romantic-fantasy-themed D&D game, full of redeemable villains and non-violent solutions. How do you make that happen? What do the rules need to do? And why aren't you all just playing Monsterhearts instead?

The biggest burden, as usual, falls on the GM. The GM is the person who establishes what kind of world the game takes place in, after all; and if the world that they present to their players is one that doesn't seem like it's going to be amenable to romantic-fantasy-style problem-solving, then the PCs will probably just turtle up and start murderhoboing instead. So what sort of things might one expect such a romantic fantasy game or setting to contain?

1: Injustice may be severe and commonplace, but it is neither inevitable nor invincible

As I've been emphasising throughout, romantic fantasy narratives don't have to be all sweetness and light; in fact, they're very often full of cruelty and darkness. But if you want PCs who are willing to go the extra mile to resolve situations without just killing everyone and taking their stuff, you need to make clear that the campaign world is the kind of place where things might be bad, but they can get better. If the tone is one of bleak, cynical amorality, where every petty tyrant you overthrow is immediately replaced by another one who's twice as nasty, then the players will very rapidly stop bothering to strive for a better world.

Let me repeat: this doesn't mean the setting has to be nice, but it does mean that it has to be improvable. Specific injustices can be ended. Cycles of violence can be broken. So let your PCs have the victories they work for, demonstrating to them that, with enough determination, they really can build a better world around themselves, even if it's only within the confines of their own community or home.

2: Very few people are irredeemably awful

Some are. Some people are just plain horrible. But mostly people do evil either because they're badly damaged individuals lashing out at the world that has hurt them (in which case the PCs will potentially be able to heal them), or because they've been socially conditioned to believe it's necessary (in which case the PCs will potentially be able to persuade them of the error of their ways). NPC villains may be hated, but they should often also be pitied; and PCs who really, seriously want to redeem someone, and who are willing to devote sufficient energy and attention to the task, should usually have a decent chance of success.

'Oh, my tormented soul! If only someone would come along and redeem me already!'

3: Motivations are personal

Characters in traditional fantasy RPGs often have very abstract motivations, like 'wealth', 'power', 'knowledge', or 'justice', or else by commitments which relate to abstract entities, like 'serve the Faith' or 'protect the Kingdom' or 'take over the world'. In romantic fantasy narratives, motivations tend to be much more personal: 'impress my elder sister', 'marry that guy I've got a crush on', 'get back at that woman who insulted and humiliated me all that time ago', and so on. By giving NPCs motivations like this (and by giving PCs ample opportunities to discover them), you'll make it much easier for PCs to steer, influence, and generally manipulate them via social interactions. Someone who just 'wants power' can't really be influenced except with straightforward bribes ('help me and I will give you this power') or threats ('help me or I will take your power away'), which reduces social interactions with them to a simple matter of logistics: if you don't have sufficient resources to credibly bribe or threaten them them, then you're out of luck. But someone who wants their big sister's approval is a proper character-based storyline waiting to happen: a storyline in which anyone can potentially play an important role.

4: Encounters usually won't go straight to violence, and diplomatic solutions are possible

In most romantic fantasy narratives, violence isn't exciting or fun; it's horrible. As a result, very few people are likely to do the whole 'attack on sight and fight to the death' routine so common in modern D&D games, because they know that wounds hurt and fights are terrifying and death is forever. Stumble across a bunch of dudes in a dungeon and they might well leap to their feet and point weapons at you - but then they'll hesitate, hoping that the whole situation can be resolved without them actually having to risk their lives, and that hesitation opens up a space for people to talk to one another; bribe, threaten, bluff, negotiate, whatever. This doesn't mean that the PCs can simply deal with situations by walking from one group of monsters to the next and saying 'Hey, let's be friends!', because - as mentioned - the world is a cruel place, and its inhabitants have been forced to adapt to its cruelty, which includes learning not to let their guard down; they'll have been hurt before, and will have every reason to expect that this latest bunch of strangers just want to trick or exploit them, too. But PCs who are prepared to make an actual diplomatic effort - to listen to what each group wants, to understand why they're doing whatever it is they do, and to try to find a non-violent solution to the situation in which they all find themselves - should have a decent chance of success, and may even be able to convert potential enemies into friends or allies, instead.

5: Everyone is important

It's easy for fantasy RPGs to default to a paradigm in which only the movers and shakers really count. The PCs are important because they're good at killing people; the king is important because he has an army; the evil wizard is important because he can cast cloudkill; but the swarms of 0-level characters who circle around them are just unimportant extras. In a romantic fantasy game, though, this doesn't have to - and indeed shouldn't - be the case; there should be plenty of important characters, playing pivotal roles in whatever is currently going on, who are just ordinary people whose significance comes not from their ability to blow stuff up but from their emotional connections to those around them. The fact that the queen relies on her handmaiden for advice on her love life makes that handmaiden at least as important as the champion the queen relies upon to kill her enemies. Of course not every passing groom or maidservant can be a major character; but ensuring that a good number of the significant characters in any given situation are relatively ordinary should help to emphasise that this is a world in which emotional and social bonds are at least as important as sheer firepower.

Also important: pet dogs!

I think that applying these five principles to any RPG should go a long way towards making them amenable to the style of play that I've been discussing, here - always assuming, of course, that you've talked to your players and checked that they're onboard with the whole idea first. (If they're not onboard with it, they'll sink it faster than you can say: 'Gosh, shooting the princess in the back and then stealing her tiara wasn't very romantic, was it?') The exact same set-up - a keep on an unsettled borderland region, for example, adjacent to a cave system inhabited by feuding humanoid tribes - will play out very, very differently if all the groups involved are presented as relatively sympathetic, willing to listen to reason, and bound together by personal connections and motivations, rather than simply as murderous savages who attack anyone trespassing on their turf. But these principles could be applied to almost any game, in almost any system, which brings me onto my last point: how does any of this fit in with OSR D&D?

These days, there are plenty of newfangled games around which build systems for social interactions right into the rules. Apocalypse World and its derivatives, especially Monsterhearts, place inter-character relationships at the heart of the rules, and indeed make them much more mechanically 'solid' than the kind of things that most traditional RPG rulesets generally try to model, while Fate would be an example of a more traditional game which tries to give social interactions the same mechanical 'weight' as physical ones (and, indeed, models them in pretty much exactly the same way). Social mechanics like these are very, very divisive among RPG players; some people love them, while others feel that such matters should simply be roleplayed out rather than reduced to a matter of dice-rolling, and/or deeply resent the idea that the dice can tell them what their character now thinks or feels, even if they think that she would actually be thinking or feeling something completely different. If you want a game which will mechanically model a conversation in the same way that an older game would model a sword-fight, then OSR D&D is obviously a terrible choice. If you prefer more traditional games, though, in which talking to people is modelled by, um, talking to people, then I think it has a lot to recommend it: it's quick, it's simple, most people are already familiar with it, the fragility of its characters serves to heavily dis-incentivise combat, and - as I've written about before - it actually has a surprisingly robust social interaction system in the form of the reactions, morale, and henchmen rules.

The Knights of the Round Table, failing yet another morale check.

If you're playing in an explicitly romantic fantasy idiom, the only rules changes I'd suggest making are these:

  1. Except in extreme situations, no reaction roll should lead to immediate and automatic violence. A roll of 2 might indicate such extreme hostility that violence will very likely ensue unless the PCs either leave rapidly or take immediate steps to calm the situation down, but 'You walk into the room and the guy inside it shoots you in the face' should be something that basically never happens unless one character has powerful pre-existing reasons for wanting another dead.
  2. Be generous in permitting bonuses to reaction checks based on PC actions. PCs who make good-faith efforts to interact diplomatically with people should be rewarded for it!
  3. Morale rolls should probably be called for more often than they are in the standard rules. Unless they're already under attack, most intelligent beings should probably require a morale roll to enter combat against any kind of credible opposition: even if they'd really like their enemies to be dead now, it takes guts (and/or reckless stupidity) to translate that desire into actually running up and attacking and maybe getting hacked to death. Similarly, once combat starts, a morale check is probably called for every time the situation takes a dramatic change for the worse. The more morale checks are used, the less likely it is that any given bunch of people will insist on grimly fighting to the last man.
  4. As Yora's suggested, you might want to award XP for something other than stealing people's gold. (Exactly how such an XP system would function is beyond the scope of this post, but I'm sure you can think of lots of possibilities!)
These house rules, in addition to the general morale and reaction rules, should ensure that there is very often a chance for situations to be resolved socially rather than violently. Whether the PCs take advantage of that chance is up to them, but at least it'll be there.

So. That's the what, the why, and the how dealt with. In my next post - which should be the last one in this series - I'll try to explain why I'd describe ATWC as a romantic fantasy setting, and to give some concrete examples of what a traditional D&D adventure might look like if translated into a romantic fantasy mode...

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Romantic Fantasy Revisited 2: Why would I want this in a game?

So, I my last post I explained what I meant by 'romantic fantasy', and why I don't view it as being purely defined by the presence or absence of love stories within the narrative. Now onto sub-question two: why would you want something like this in an RPG?

Even though I've already written several times about how romantic relationships might take a larger role in D&D campaigns, I don't really think that the fictional genre of romance proper is very well-suited to the strengths of tabletop RPGs as a form. For one thing, the basic romance narrative is usually a story about exactly two people, and thus ill-suited to a group game such as D&D. For another, the things which are most important to the romance genre are the things which traditional RPGs are worst at, namely exploring the slow development of people's complex feelings towards each other, feelings which may well not be expressed in actions or even in words until almost the end of the story. (I love RPGs, but they are much better suited to melodrama than to any kind of emotional nuance.) Yet another problem is that traditional romance narratives have a predetermined end point, in the form of the 'happily ever after', whereas RPG campaigns are expected to run and run. Thus, in order to get something more readily gameable out of the concept, I think one would need to foreground the more general characteristics of the genre which I discussed in my previous post: fantasy adventures which emphasise the importance of relationship-building and diplomatic solutions. There might be lots of actual romantic relationships such games as well, but they probably wouldn't be as central as they are to much of the source material.

The idea of resolving encounters through non-violent social interaction is hardly a new one. If you look at the very earliest D&D rulebooks and adventures, they presuppose a world filled with danger which can be navigated in three ways: via combat (kill the monsters), via logical problem-solving (work out a way to rob or evade or outmanoeuvre the monsters), or via diplomacy (persuade the monsters to leave you alone, and maybe even help you out or fight your enemies for you). WotC D&D has mostly been all about the combat, whereas OSR D&D is more likely to emphasise the problem-solving, as Arnold K's eloquent discussion of 'OSR-style challenges' demonstrates; but while you're more likely to find diplomatic elements built into OSR adventures than into, say, Pathfinder modules, they're usually not accorded any kind of central role. (Maze of the Blue Medusa may be an exception, as the best way through it really is just to walk very cautiously from room to room having very strange conversations with very strange people.) If your group prefers combat and/or problem-solving to diplomacy, then that's fine: those are totally legitimate preferences, and indeed almost certainly define the majority of participants in the hobby. But I've gamed with a number of players over the years who really enjoy things like befriending goblins by swapping make-up tips ('I hear mud-brown is in this season!'), flirting with princesses, developing weird love-hate frenemy relationships with local authority figures, adopting strange outcast kids as sidekicks, and generally using social interactions with NPCs as one of the main methods through which they interacted with the game world. And if that's a mode of play which your group enjoys and wants to encourage, then I think there's a lot to be gained from building it into the game at ground-level, creating a world which is built around relationships and thus amenable to relationship-based manipulation.

That's from the player's side; but I think it can be a rewarding mode of play for GMs, as well. It always makes me sad when I see an adventure where the author has gone to the trouble of writing a bunch of interesting and sympathetic antagonists, and then just put them into the actual module as so much sword-fodder. (Pathfinder APs are the worst for this, regularly giving multi-page write-ups to NPCs who will be lucky to survive three combat rounds.) Why is the last line of the description so often some minor variation on 'so now (s)he is totally evil and just wants to kill people'? Doesn't that render everything else meaningless? The PCs aren't going to care about the tragic backstory of that hyper-aggressive bandit / cultist / wizard / pirate who attacked them on sight and fought to the death; they're just going to loot the corpses, and quite right, too.

'I don't give a fuck about your sympathetic backstory!'

If you want to run a combat-based game, then the sensible choice is just to cut all this stuff, and accept that Bandit Bob is never going to be anything more than a speedbump in the party's quest for loot and XP; but if you actually quite like coming up with interesting antagonists, then a more relationship-focused, diplomacy-heavy game will let you get much more mileage out of them. If the general expectation is that very few encounters will go straight to combat, and that the non-violent resolution of conflicts is usually a real possibility, then the PCs are much more likely to actually talk to your NPCs, find out about them, explore how the situation arose, discuss where they might go from here, and so on. Maybe they still end up fighting each other; but if that's one option among many, rather than the standard default setting, then you're much more likely to get to use your NPCs as something more than just a statline, without having to resort to all that garbage where the PCs kick down the door, kill the villain on sight, and then have to learn about who they were and why they were doing what they did from a convenient journal left lying on their desk. ('Dear diary, today I raised an undead army as a way of getting back at my abusive step-father. I hope no adventurers come by and stab me to death!')

Running a game like this means giving up certain other things. In particular, it means abandoning the idea of an adventure as a carefully-based, carefully-balanced series of mechanical challenges, because the idea that the fights with the orcs and the goblins should each use up about 20% of the party's resources and thus weaken them enough for the battle with the giant to be a fair but challenging fight goes out of the window when the PCs might end up making friends with the goblins and persuading the orcs to take up gardening instead. If you're the kind of person who reads OSR blogs, though, you're probably not very interested in that style of play in the first place; and from a more sandboxy, OSR-ish perspective, I think the loss is more than made up for by the increased freedom granted by such a model. If every encounter ends in violence, then you can't put anything into a game which the PCs aren't capable of either killing or evading; but the more possible you make it for players to talk their way through encounters, the more that limitation falls away. Go ahead: put the dragon in the level 1 dungeon! Maybe the PCs trick it. Maybe they befriend it. Maybe they unite the orcs and the goblins and the hobgoblins into a grand alliance against it. One of the key tenets of romantic fantasy is that emotions and relationships are great levellers, and the fact that Kate is a hundred or a thousand times better at killing stuff than Bob doesn't actually matter very much if what Kate wants from Bob is not his death but his love, or his approval, or his understanding, or his forgiveness, or his respect. The more you allow personal motivations like these, rather than brute power and violence, to be the motors that keep your campaign world running, the less you need to worry about power disparities and challenge ratings and all those other new-school annoyances. All it requires is for the GM to trust the PCs to come up with good, socially-based solutions, and for the PCs to trust the GM to present them with situations in which such solutions have a decent chance to actually work.

It's not going to be for everyone. That's fine. But if it's something you might be interested in incorporating into your own games, then hold on for part 3, which will address the all-important question: 'How can I incorporate this stuff into a game of D&D?

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Romantic Fantasy Revisited 1: What it is, and what it might be.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a short post about romantic fantasy and OSR D&D. It was really only intended as a brief explanation of what I meant by the phrase 'romantic fantasy' in the blog title, which might otherwise seem weirdly at odds with the darkness of much of the material I wrote about; but it's gone on to be one of the most-viewed posts on the blog (number 3 at time of writing), and it's the one that people have most frequently contacted me about, asking for further discussion or explanation. What do I mean by 'romantic fantasy'? Why might you want it in an RPG? Why would D&D, as opposed to some kind of fancy storygame like Monsterhearts, be an appropriate system to use for it? And what does any of this have to do with the world I've been describing in 'Against The Wicked City'?

When I started writing this post, I blithely assumed I could cover all this in a single medium-length piece. I was wrong. So this will be a sequence of posts, instead, tackling each part of the question in turn: first what the genre is, then why you might want to use it as part of a D&D game, and finally how, in practical terms,  you might go about doing that if you were interested in doing so. If you're just here for the Central Asian stuff, then, um... come back in about a week?

So. Like its on-again, off-again girlfriend, 'Gothic', the word 'Romance' has meant an awful lot of different things over the years. (It's one of the things they like about each other.) In the Middle Ages, a 'romance' was a fantastical story of chivalric adventure. In the early modern period, a 'romance' was an epic tale of love and war set against the backdrop of an idealised fantasy version of the historical past. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a 'romance' was a story of improbable and possibly supernatural adventures with an exotic (and usually historical) setting. And in the twentieth century, a 'romance' was a love story. The whole fantasy genre, especially the tradition of sub-Tolkien 'high' fantasy, is basically an outgrowth of 'romance' in the older senses of the word, but its relationship with 'romance' in the word's modern sense has been rather conflicted. Within the male-dominated fantasy tradition that D&D is primarily based upon, love stories often feature as parts of the plot, but very seldom provide the main focus of the story.

Now, in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, something of a female counter-tradition of fantasy writing began to appear, written by people like Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley (who was huge at the time, despite all the awful stuff that's come up since she died), and Jayne Ann Krentz. Their books were very popular, but because both their readers and writers were primarily female they tended to get marginalised within the fantasy genre as a whole. In their works, romantic love stories very often formed a major element of the plot, and so the genre that they helped to create - and which, more recently, has been developed in the works of people like long-term D&D gamer Elizabeth Vaughan - is now what most people probably mean when they use the phrase 'romantic fantasy'. As a genre, it fades away on various sides into paranormal romance (Annette Curtis Klause et al), time-travel romance (e.g. Diana Gabaldon's Outlander), young adult fantasy (e.g. Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle), fairy-tale rewrites (e.g. Ella Enchanted), urban fantasy (to the extent that it's possible to distinguish this from paranormal romance), and the 'mainstream' fantasy tradition of Tolkien, Eddings, Brooks, etc, etc. Its core tropes include imperilled but determined heroines, troubled heroes, animal companions (magical or otherwise), an emphasis on problem-solving through empathy and relationship-building as well as (or instead of) through violence, and a strong focus on the importance of sex and sexual attraction as a force in people's lives, for better and for worse.

Whenever my students start gushing about Frozen, I try to remind them that aggressive rewrites of fairy-tales have been part of mainstream popular culture since the mid-1990s...

There is, to my knowledge, only one RPG that bill itself as being a 'romantic fantasy' game, namely Blue Rose. (Monsterhearts is paranormal romance, which is related but distinct.) Blue Rose is specifically and explicitly modelled on the novels of Mercedes Lackey, and as such it emphasises one version of the genre: novels set in fantasy realms where people are mostly decent, the world is a pretty nice place to live, awful things certainly happen but they remain the exception rather than the rule, and so on. I would emphasise, however, that this form of romantic fantasy is by no means the only kind. As Trollsmyth points out in a post Yora linked me to, a lot of the genre - especially along its more Gothic edge, which is like this vast misty borderland infested with sexy shirtless vampires - is actually really, really dark. It differs from regular fantasy, and even 'dark' fantasy, not because it has any lack of horror or cruelty, but because it tends to have a very different view of where horror and cruelty come from, and what might be necessary to defeat them. 'Mainstream' fantasy usually mythologises the traditionally 'masculine' problem-solving methods of logic and violence: identify the baddies, formulate a plan which makes efficient use of your available resources, and then kill the fuck out of the bastards. Romantic fantasy, by contrast, tends to foreground traditionally 'feminine' problem-solving methods, based around relationship-building, empathy, diplomacy, healing, and love. Many of its antagonists are redeemable, and the ones who aren't are usually defeated as much by the heroine's ability to build alliances and make emotional connections with people as by her ability to beat people to death.

It's in this sense that I'd describe fantasy films like Labyrinth, Spirited Away, and Song of the Sea as being 'romantic', as much in the older sense of the world as the new: they depict worlds in which almost no-one is irredeemably awful, and in which the powers of evil can be overcome by ordinary people equipped only with the gifts of bravery, determination, intelligence (especially emotional intelligence), and love. I see them as similar to romantic fantasy 'proper' insofar as they share its focus on solving problems by building relationships and talking to people, and a corresponding lack of emphasis on solving problems by being super-awesome at murdering people. Their protagonists, like almost all romance heroines since the modern romance genre was invented, find themselves in worlds full of darkness, which they usually appear ludicrously ill-equipped to fight; but they beat that darkness back through acts of healing and fortitude and empathy, rather than by stabbing it in the face.

(I mean, some romance heroines also stab it in the face. And some of them manage to get their boyfriends to stop moping for long enough to stab it in the face on their behalf. But the face-stabbing is usually of secondary importance when compared to the relationship-building which precedes it.)

When I write about 'romantic fantasy', then, I don't just mean 'fantasy stories where the plot is built around two people falling in love'; as I'll discuss in my next post, I don't think stories like that are very well-suited to tabletop gaming in any case. Instead, I mean that form of fantasy which, like such stories, emphasises the importance and viability of non-violent solutions, and tends to take a relatively optimistic (or 'romantic') view of human nature, although usually not of the human condition. In this I see it as akin to many older 'romance' narratives of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, where kidnapped princesses are often able to guilt-trip their captors into behaving more appropriately, psychic governesses can bring out the good side of their horribly damaged hero-villain employers, and Gothic heroines can overcome their monstrous persecutors armed only with a straw hat and a sketchbook.

So. That's the genre. Next up: why any of this might be something that someone might want in a game of D&D!

Friday, 10 June 2016

I wrote it so I might as well post it 3: Homeric Greece and Frogs in Hats

I am writing the post on romantic fantasy that I promised, but it's proving to be much longer and more complicated than I expected. It may have to end up as a series of posts rather than just one. So in the meantime, you get filler content, in the form of a bunch of random tables I've posted on forums over the last few months in response to various people's requests for ideas. None of them have anything to do with ATWC, but I kinda like the frogs in hats.

So, first up, some (mildly) weird fantasy. Some guy asked for suggestions for stuff to place in a 'gonzo fantasy' continent, so I wrote...

Table 1: What have we just found in Gonzo Land? (Roll 1d6)

1: The shattered remains of a domed city, wrecked by some inconceivable violence in ages past. It's inhabited by feuding clans of vicious sophisticates, who engage in brutal turf wars among the shattered streets in the intervals between making sniffy comments about one another's clothes. Each gang cultivates its own outlandish style, but all of them replace their fingernails with surgically-implanted fragments of glass, scavenged from the wreckage of the city's shattered dome. These glass claws also serve as their weapons of choice in their all-too-frequent bouts of internecine violence.

2: The Bullywug Floating Republic, an immense armada of ships, boats, and floating platforms that gradually floats counter-clockwise around the whole edge of the continent, completing one circuit every three years. It's run by a hierarchy of fanatically disciplined Bullywug sailors, who dress like 18th-century naval officers (complete with bicorn hats) and are obsessed with keeping the flotilla moving on schedule: anyone slowing it down will be court-martialled and probably shot. They are the continent's greatest masters of shipbuilding, navigation, gunnery, and cartography, but no-one likes dealing with them because the Bullywugs keep looking at their pocket-watches and making tutting noises. Buying temporary citizenship of the Republic (1 gp per day, rations not included) is a slow but reliable way of travelling from one seaport to the next.

3: A procession of robot pilgrims declare that they're on their way to some distant shrine, and will explain at enormous length that their faith is purer than that of any human because they have been programmed to feel no doubt. They enthusiastically invite passers-by to join them, waxing eloquent on the many wonders that they hope to see when they finally reach their destination. The shrine they're going to was swallowed whole by a giant space dragon several hundred years ago. Their pilgrimage will never end.

4: A frozen lake, surrounded on all sides by temperate, sunny plains. Inside it can be glimpsed the forms of huge aboleth, entombed in the ice; they're still alive, down there, and anyone getting too close will hear their psychic voices calling in their minds, begging to be cut out and released. The gnoll tribes nearby are overwhelmingly paranoid about aboleth influence after some very bad experiences in the past, and will inflict crude lobotomies on anyone acting suspiciously in order to ensure that they're not mind-slaves of the monsters in the ice.

5: A grazing herd of twenty-ton Paraceratherium, meandering slowly across the endless grasslands. As they go, they talk to one another in low, rumbling voices, always about the same three topics: history, mathematics, and grass. Their knowledge on all three topics is immense, passed down from one generation to the next in the form of interminable rambling dialogues, but they will reveal it to outsiders only in exchange for new information: in exchange for a fact about grass they require new information about history, in exchange for knowledge about history they require new information on mathematics, and in exchange for mathematical knowledge they require new information about grass. (This last is much the hardest; there is very little about grass that they don't know already.) Anyone trying to deceive them with false information will be unceremoniously trampled to death.

6: Vast networks of mineshafts, dug out by countless generations of kobolds, keep running into the unbreakable bones of some unimaginable creature. As far as the mine engineers can tell, the skeleton appears to be that of some kind of colossal lizard-beast, at least three or four miles long, but their picture of what it must have looked like in life keeps having to be revised as they run across new bone structures that don't seem to fit. A lunatic cult which lurks in the nearby woods believes that the creature is the earthly form of their horrible monster-god, and that when it is fully excavated their prayers will return it to life to rampage across the world, drowning the nations in glory and death. The kobolds occasionally debate whether they should stop digging around it, just in case, but the ore veins are just too rich to turn down...

Then there was the guy who wanted help with stocking the hexes of his Greek Heroic Age hexcrawl, and some suggestions for 'random village problems' the PCs might run into, so I wrote...

Table 2: Random Village Problems In The Greek Heroic Age (roll 1d10)

  1. Centaurs have stolen our women!
  2. The local king is a hubristic asshole and it's only a matter of time before he ends up bringing down divine vengeance upon all of us. Please persuade him to stop before he fucks up.
  3. Some moron spied on the local river nymph while she was bathing and now she's withholding the waters until we bring him in for punishment. Unfortunately he left town three days ago and we don't know where he's gone.
  4. A bunch of Stymphalian birds have settled in the local forests and keep trying to eat us. Help.
  5. Some kid from our village insulted a hero and now he's out for blood. We would like to solve this problem without all getting killed by some wrath-crazed demigod.
  6. One of King Minos' ship just arrived from Crete. They say they from now on, we're expected to send them annual tribute. Human tribute.
  7. We think the new guy in town is probably an Arcadian werewolf. There's definitely something eating our sheep at night...
  8. We think the new girl in town is probably a Thessalian witch. She was certainly up to something on the night of the last full moon!
  9. A cult of Bacchae has just arrived in our community and we are scared and confused, and also we do not want to be eaten by their pet tigers.
  10. Apparently the gods are angry with us and we have no fucking idea what we did wrong. Help us work out what it was before they send a giant monster or something.

Table 3: Random Hex Contents in the Greek Heroic Age (Roll 1d20)

  1. Bacchic cult engaged in drunken revels.
  2. Shipwrecked Laestrygonians looking for humans to eat.
  3. Sheep-herding cyclops living in a cave up in the mountains.
  4. Ordinary-seeming Arcadian villagers are all secretly werewolves.
  5. Colony of Stymphalian birds wrecking everything.
  6. Coven of witches newly arrived from Thessaly.
  7. Abandoned Cyclopean forge, built on a superhuman scale. Forgotten in a corner lie 1d4 thunderbolts, ready for hurling. Throwing one obliterates pretty much any single mortal target but draws the attention and ire of Zeus.
  8. Drunken centaurs on the rampage.
  9. Wise centaur sage living as a hermit, teaches knowledge and healing to those he judges to be worthy.
  10. Cavern system haunted by lampads, the light of whose torches drives men mad.
  11. Visiting princes from Troy on diplomatic mission to nearby king, accompanied by their retinue, throwing money around like water and boasting that their city is invincible.
  12. Travelling rhapsode sings and composes epic poetry, eager to talk to PCs about their experiences so that he can use it as the basis for some new material.
  13. Adolescent hero, no idea who his father was but pretty sure it must have been one of the Olympians, wandering from temple to temple in search of clues about his heritage.
  14. Flower-filled meadow inhabited by an alseid, worshipped as a minor divinity by the surrounding villages.
  15. Lone man, crazed, gibbering, filthy, pursued by the Furies.
  16. Troupe of Korybantes war-dancers, looking for a good fight followed by a good dance, or possibly the other way around.
  17. Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, asks passers-by if they know any good jokes.
  18. Proteus is lurking around here, disguised as an ordinary animal. If recognised and successfully wrestled with he will agree to foretell the future for his vanquisher.
  19. A band of lonely satyrs looking for nymphs to chase.
  20. Beautiful princess out walking with attendants, jumpy and nervous, assumes any animal that behaves oddly around her is probably Zeus in disguise.

Then there was the guy who wanted suggestions for stuff that you might find in a post-apocaylptic fantasy landscape. So I wrote:

Table 4: Stuff To Find After a Fantasy Apocalypse (roll 1d10)

(I totally reused some of these ideas for table 1.)

  1. A great field full of black stone ziggurats, all embedded into the ground at different angles, including upside down. Clearly they all fell from the sky, probably from a great height. Strange creatures, and the undead remains of their original occupants, lurk inside.
  2. A sunken town at the bottom of a lake. Weird coloured lights can be seen flashing down there at night.
  3. An apparently ordinary field which, once a year, echoes with shouts, screams, battle-cries in forgotten languages, and the roar of unimaginable weaponry. Digging down far enough will reveal a compacted layer of bones, which must once have comprised tens if not hundreds of thousands of skeletons, intertwined with all manner of military wreckage.
  4. Magical beings designed to test the faith of pilgrims visiting a long-fallen shrine. The shrine is dust, now, but the guardians are still there, waylaying passers-by and insisting that they answer questions relating to the doctrine of their long-forgotten faith. Those who failed were supposed to be taken for compulsory religious instruction; but as the last priest died millennia ago, the spirits just grab their victims and march them round in circles until they die of exhaustion.
  5. Ancient law-enforcement golems, looking like prison blocks on legs. Animated chains leap out and grab 'lawbreakers' and 'trespassers', depositing them in cells within the golem's body: when it has a full load, it returns them to 'the courthouse' for judgement. The courthouse in question is a ruin inhabited by tribes of cannibal ghouls, who view the golems as a food delivery system.
  6. Floating islands, topped with the ruins of what were once flying castles, flying across the world in endless, looping circles. Their inhabitants use various means of getting down to the surface: some have domesticated great flying beasts, some use refurbished flying machines, and some just drop down really long ladders.
  7. A series of icy caves, in which rest the perfectly preserved corpses of various ancient saints and heroes, guarded by a race of tiny, cold-skinned, wide-eyed creatures which never speak and never sleep and worship the corpses as sleeping gods.
  8. An immense fallen war-golem, so huge that a small town has grown up in its shadow. The town's leaders have figured out how to turn its deadly eyebeams on and off by yelling command words into its enormous stone ears, but they have no way of turning its head.
  9. A ritual complex once used to teach magic to apprentices, now in ruins. Glitching magical images of ancient tutors recite mixtures of wisdom and gibberish, and direct 'students' into further rooms, half of which are now filled with deadly monsters or lethally-misfiring magical effects.
  10. A lonely sea-coast on which the fisher-folk frequently bring up fragments of unbreakable glass in their nets, pieces of the dome which once protected a long-ruined underwater city. The older ones swear that they can hear something singing to them out of the water on moonless nights. 

Finally, some guy had a setting with loads of little principalities and was asking for suggestions for ways to differentiate them from one another, so I wrote:

Table 5: Yeah, but in My Principality... (roll 1d12)

  1. ...we have a national holiday where everyone has to go out and catch poisonous jellyfish.
  2. ...we once had this mad king who built, like, ten different castles in the middle of this swamp, all of which now lie in ruins.
  3. ...we have this old shrine where people roll around in the mud at a holy spring in the hope of being cured of all afflictions. Sometimes it works.
  4. ...we have a tradition that it's supposed to be bad luck to kill a toad. Like, really bad luck. You wouldn't believe the lengths people go to in order to get rid of them non-fatally.
  5. ...we're supposed to wear red for three years after the death of a parent, and for two years after the death of a child.
  6. ...we're economically dependent on silver-mining, but the mines are producing less silver every year.
  7. ...we're all taught how to fight with spears as kids. I think it's a tradition or something.
  8. ...we have a custom that the reigning prince must never reveal his face or his hands in public.
  9. ...we have a legend that the Great Starfarer will one day return and take us with her.
  10. ...we make the best cider for hundreds of miles around. Don't try the beer, though. That stuff tastes like shit.
  11. ...we give each other live birds as love-tokens. Wealthy lovers will pay a small fortune for an especially rare and beautiful bird.
  12. ...we have, like, a hundred traditional songs about how we once won this battle against this evil duke, and all of them go on for hours. I can sing one of them for you right now, if you like!

Anyway. First romantic fantasy post should be coming soon!

Sunday, 5 June 2016

A Year in the Wicked City


It's now a year since I started writing this blog. I started it for two reasons, one positive and one negative. The positive reason was that I was really inspired by the level of creativity that I was seeing in the OSR blogosphere, and I wanted, in my own small way, to contribute to it. The negative reason was that my son had just turned one and my opportunities for actual gaming had  shrunk to almost zero. I was still writing game-related stuff, because I always write game-related stuff, but I didn't have a chance to use it; it was just piling up on my hard drive, where it was no use to anyone. So I started the blog, partly as a substitute for actual play, and partly in the hope that even if I couldn't use this stuff, maybe someone else out there could...

I didn't really expect to find an audience: after all, 'romantic clockpunk fantasy inspired by the history of early modern central Asia' isn't exactly a mainstream genre. Once I finally overcame my squeamishness about Google plus, however, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there actually did seem to be people who were willing to read my ramblings about Mongolian shamanism and clockwork zombies, or at least people who were willing to click on a link to them, shake their heads in weary despair, and then hit 'back' on their browser. These days, I average a bit more than 200 pageviews per day, which is a tenfold increase on what the blog got back when it was just starting out. So that's nice.

Over the course of my year-long foray into the exciting and glamorous world of D&D blogging, during which this blog has risen from the lowest levels of the OSR blogosphere to, um, the lower-mid-regions of the OSR blogosphere (maybe around its knees, or something), I have learned the following Important Lessons:

1: Everyone's really friendly. 

It's actually kinda spooky. I've been hovering around the edges of online RPG fandom since the late 1990s, so when I started the blog I assumed it was only a matter of time before someone contacted me via G+ or the comments section to tell me I was evil and stupid and possibly mentally ill because of the way I like to play Dungeons and Dragons. That a whole year has now gone past without this happening, and that all the comments I've had have in fact been very positive and supportive, is a testament to the friendliness of the community, or at least the bits of it that I've interacted with so far.

2: There's no sense of hierarchy. 

The people who run the biggest, most popular, best-known OSR blogs really will read and reshare and link to posts on new and unproven blogs like this one. I mean, I know it's not as though there's that many of us to start with, but anyone who's ever been to school will know that small numbers are no barrier against the establishment of exclusionary social ranking systems. It's nice to see that's not the case here.

3: 'General-purpose' posts seem to be much the most popular. 

When I started the blog, I thought that no-one could possibly care about my thoughts on how to run D&D or what I liked or disliked about other people's adventure modules, but actually those have consistently been my most frequently read and reshared posts. Original material - classes, monsters, settings, the stuff I think of as actual content - tends to be much less popular, both in terms of page-views and '+1's. I'm going to carry on posting the setting-specific stuff, because that's what gives the blog its identity - without it, it'd just be another website full of some random guy's opinions about games, and I think the internet probably has enough of those already - but there may be a bit of a slide towards more general topics as well.

4: People really love 'gaming archaeology'

Delving back into D&D texts from the 1970s and early 1980s, to give them a new look and see what's been forgotten along the way, always seems to get very positive responses. Not that this should be very surprising: many of those old books really are treasure troves. It's probably only a matter of time before I write a post in which I wax lyrical about B10 Night's Dark Terror and/or X5 Temple of Death.

5: I need to write more about romantic fantasy

My initial post about romantic fantasy and oldschool D&D was written in about thirty minutes, just as a way of explaining the 'romantic fantasy' bit in the blog header; but people keep writing to me about it, really intrigued by the idea, and there's clearly a lot more to be said on the subject. So one thing I'm definitely going to be doing in the near-future is a few more posts on what I mean by 'romantic fantasy', what it might look like in play, why one might want to play in such a style, why I don't see it as incompatible with the use of horror material, and so on.

6: Oh my god it's full of worms. 

The more OSR stuff I read, the more I notice the patterns of shared imagery. Worms. Rats. Cults. Insects. Snake-men and lizard-men. Horrible cities. Corpses. Fungus. Machinery. Cannibalism. Blood. Slavery. Mutation. Drugs. Masks. I do it too; half the stuff I write is about masked lunatics lurking in creepy cityscapes full of weird machines. It's not enough to say it's because OSR gamers tend to have an interest in horror in general, and Lovecraft in particular. I mean, that's part of it, but there's something else going on. I'm not sure what it is, yet. I'm working on it.

Cuğa Necropolis, Naxçıvan region. AZERBAİJAN:

Anyway. I've had a lot of fun writing the blog over the last year, and it's been hugely inspiring to see all the brilliant people other people have been coming up with over the same time. (In particular, Goblin Punch never fails to impress me, and the stuff Noisms is doing at the moment on the dream-world of a several-million-year-old crocodile is just brilliant.) I know that the OSR blog-world isn't quite as hyperactive as it was a few years ago, but a lot of extremely strong work is still coming out of it, and its collective creativity still dwarfs that of the official industry. So: thanks for all the feedback, thanks for all the links and +1s, do let me know if there's anything you want to see more of, and here's to a second successful year in the Wicked City.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

When all else fails, try burying wooden dolls!

In Yakutia, as in most parts of northern and central Asia, it was widely believed that bad luck and diseases were caused by malicious spirits; and when the spirits proved particularly persistent, the Sakha had a folk tradition for how to get rid of them. They would hide the blighted individual inside their home, where the spirit hopefully wouldn't see them; then they would construct a wooden effigy of that person and bury it, just as though it had been a real corpse, complete with loud lamentations and expressions of grief at the person's death. The idea was that the evil spirit responsible for their sickness or misfortune, hearing all this, would assume that their target had finally perished; believing their horrible work to be complete, they would thus go off and find someone else to torment instead, leaving their real victim free of their malice at last.

PCs being PCs, there are any number of ways that one of them might end up attracting the attentions of hostile spirits during their travels in the deep wilderness. Deliberately or accidentally, they could end up killing a spirit's human lover or favoured devotee; they could damage its shrines or spirit poles, interrupt or steal its offerings, trespass in its sacred places, or just say the wrong thing at the wrong time. If this happens in the taiga, then any locals who find out about it will strongly advise the PCs to hide their afflicted comrade in the nearest house or yurt and get to work carving a wooden effigy of them as quickly as possible.

You might think that this would only work if a spirit was very, very stupid. But spirits are distant and alien and strange, and many of them don't really understand humans very well; some of them, no matter how intelligent, might genuinely have trouble telling the difference between a wooden carving and a human corpse, while others might pay so little attention to the people they've cursed that any kind of deception might suffice to persuade them that the job is done. After all, from their perspective, humans are like mayflies; we die all the damn time. Why question reports of any particular demise?

If this happens, really make the PCs play this out. Make them act. Make them over-act. If they're terrible at acting, good: their characters probably are, too. Make them deliver incoherent grief-stricken speeches over the grave of their wooden friend, talking about how much they admired her and how much they'll miss her and how life will never be the same now that she is totally, completely, definitely, unquestionably dead. Encourage them to really ham it up. Most spirits are not very big on subtlety.

The base chance of the deception working is 25%, modified by any or all of the following:

  • Spirit doesn't care all that much about the PC: +15%
  • Spirit has a deep-seated grudge against the PC: -20%
  • Effigy is expertly carved to resemble the PC: +15%
  • Effigy is very crudely carved: -10%
  • Effigy is actually just a log with an unsmiley-face cut into it: -20%
  • Effigy is buried wearing the PC's clothes: +5%
  • Effigy is buried with substantial grave goods and/or offerings: +15%
  • 'Mourners' seem really upset about the PC's 'death': +15%
  • 'Mourners' don't really seem to care very much about the PC's 'death': -10%
  • For each heartfelt funeral eulogy delivered over the grave: +5%
  • Loud, elaborate, day-long funeral: +10%
  • Brief, tokenistic funeral: -10%
  • PC is really well hidden during the funeral (e.g. in a sack under a bed in a darkened room): +5%
  • PC is really badly hidden during the funeral  (e.g. in a nearby bush): -10%
  • PC fails to remain hidden for the complete duration of the funeral and at least 1d6 hours thereafter: -20%

This trick can only be attempted once per person per spirit; if a spirit sees through it the first time, they're not going to fall for it in future. If a spirit has been tricked into believing that a PC they've been afflicting is dead, they will also be deeply unamused if that same person turns up alive and well in their territory a few days later. Moving on to another part of the taiga as quickly as possible after the ceremony is probably a good idea.