Monday, October 31, 2011

Review: The New Death and others

So, I mentioned the fact that I was going to review The New Death and others.

Here it is.

James Hutchings wrote The New Death and others.  Yesterday's mini-review basically summarized my thoughts — when it's good, it's great.  When it's bad, it's okay.  Can't get better than that, really.

(As an aside: the random picture and page quote combination on his "About" page gave me a picture of Devastatin' Dave, thus making James supremely cool.)

Anyway, a bit of background: James is an anarchist from Australia, and it permeates his work (his main site is here).  Several stories and poems have political subtext, though many of them are downright anvilicious (I'll take "Rumpelstiltskin" as my example, as it ends with the line, "Moral: If you can't do anything else, get into politics," but there are many examples throughout the collection).  Depending upon one's political views, this might be a deal-breaker.  No matter what one's political views, however, the frequent presence of the author in his work can be a bit off-putting.

The second criticism comes from the collection's shifts in genre and mood.  This mood whiplash can also be a weakness, as a quiet and macabre little piece reminiscent of Dunsany gives way to a stream of puns and a delivery like Woody Allen.  Overall, The New Death and others may benefit best from keeping within a specific mood.

Apart from those two general criticisms, I really liked this collection.  The author has a definite fondness for puns, paraprosdokians, and postmodernism — giving his comedy a sort of Woody Allen vibe — but Hutchings is strongest when weaving weird tales and poetry in the vein of Dunsany, Howard, and Lovecraft.

Incidentally, this is why I am inclined to review this: many of the poems and stories make Teleleli sound like a truly rad adventuring locale (then again, the tears of the gods and monastic dinosaurs bear this out).  Stories such as "How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name," "The God of the City of Dust," and my favorite among the collection, "The Scholar and the Moon," are well worth the price of admission.  Any reader should be able to get something out of it.

Despite my misgivings about some of the content trying too hard to deliver its message, his writing is excellent.  Though the mood wavers, the author's voice is strong throughout — were I to find he is a gifted storyteller among his friends, always entertaining with a pub tale or some such, I would hardly be surprised.  And while some of his prose is anvilicious, his poetry is almost never so rigid.  Though stories such as "Todd" were among my favorites, his poetry is uniformly strong.  Admittedly, I did not expect to like stories with entries such as "Under the Pyramids (based on the story of the same name by H.P. Lovecraft)," but even his poetic adaptations of existing works have the same dreamlike feel that makes his writing so strong.  This is definitely his adaptation written in his voice, and the transition is so seamless that the reader can easily forget the original.

So, despite the fact that he might want to bring certain issues to your attention with loud insistence, James Hutchings has a definite gift for words and a flair for playing with genre tropes.  The excellent work in this collection certainly makes it worth the dollar you'll spend for it.  Go order it on Amazon.com (for Kindle) and Smashwords (in various ebook formats).

Deadlands, Part V

When last we left our heroes, they managed to chase off some Rattlers, helped the St. Louis police force determine where the missing townsfolk went (they were acting as food and incubators for the Rattlers), and started on a train to Denver.  It was indicated that the head of the railroad wished for them to come to dinner.

And so they did.

As porters took everyone's bags, they started into the railroad head's mansion.  Jake and Miss O'Flahertie do not see the man in the mourning coat who gave Father Seward and David Hood their cards — he is later found to be incorporeal — but the Father and Hood see him.  He admonishes Father Seward to turn back and avoid this place, just wait for the train to take him to San Francisco, like he asked.  Father Seward ignores him and heads to the house, while Hood attempts to speak with him and passes his hand through him.  Strangely, the man is left impotently yelling on the front lawn, and does not actually step onto the porch or any portion of the house.

The group enters and greeted by the railroad head (his name currently escapes me, so I'll just refer to him as the railroad head, or the host, or the master of the house).  He is wheelchair-bound and seems to favor his right hand, as his left lays on his lap.  After introductions are made, servants show the group members to their rooms.  David Hood gets what appears to be a master bedroom, but the elderly railroad man likely doesn't go upstairs anymore, so it is used as a guest room.  Ruby O'Flahertie gets a room across the hall.  Father Seward and Jake are placed together, immediately putting them on edge, because what are the odds that putting the holy man and the sorcerer together are coincidental?

When party members arrive in their respective rooms, they find their clothes laid out for them.  Their weapons are undisturbed.  Before dressing, Father Seward speaks to Jake — given the smearing of blood from the old priest on the train, and the mysterious fellow following them, Father Seward suggests that Jake "do what he has to" if the old priest starts acting too strangely.  Everyone dresses in his or her finery — Father Seward reluctantly wears the white tuxedo he obtained from the mysterious man while Jake wears his least wrinkled suit — and proceeds to dinner.

Seated by social standing, the group finds itself separated — Hood and O'Flahertie find themselves near the head of the table, while Jake and Father Seward are cast further down.  Father Seward says grace at the request of the host, and then dinner commences.  Conversation is relatively pleasant, though it varies heavily — members of the upper classes are at one side of the table, whereas their servants are at the other end.

Eventually, dinner draws to a close.  The host takes his leave to speak with a Miss Hannity, while the other dinner guests are free to speak.  Once the business between them is finished, the host returns.  The gentlemen (relatively speaking, given the character of some of the rough-and-tumble servants) retire to a parlor to drink and smoke cigars while Miss O'Flahertie and Miss Hannity retire to a sitting room for similar conversation and respite.

Tea with the two ladies is relatively uneventful, though one of the queer, slow, black serving ladies of the house mutters disparaging comments about the two upper-class women under her breath.  When Miss O'Flahertie hears this, she attempts to stare the woman into submission, but the servant's piercing stare cows Ruby instead.  Miss Hannity intervenes to return the conversation to a semblance of levity.

As for the men, the experience is significantly more pleasant.  Jake does make certain to remark to the Father that the party guests' servants are uncouth and armed, prompting Father Seward to excuse himself to use the WC in his room — and get his gun.  Even so, the evening is pleasant.  As the master of the house falls asleep, the servants prompt everyone to return to their rooms.

(The same happens with the ladies, though the servant just abruptly turns down the lights and leaves them on their own.)

At Ruby's suggestion, the group goes to David's room to discuss matters, though Miss Hannity and her man, Jeb, also join them.  Seeing that private conversation is unlikely, Father Seward excuses himself to bed.

Father Seward unfurls his bedroll at the foot of the bed, and after arranging himself, prepares for sleep.  When Jake arrives, this causes a minor argument as each insists the other takes the bed.  Finally, Jake takes the bed after telling the Father he'll be sleeping in it the following day.

The house sleeps.

Jake is awakened by a queer sound, like metal scraping against stone — similar to a knife being sharpened, but the strokes are not so long as that.  Ruby is also awakened by it, as it sounds as though it is happening outside her door.  Jake awakens Father Seward, who painfully starts to assemble himself.  Just then, whatever is out there pounds on Ruby's door and screams.  Jake runs out the door.  Father Seward starts to go for his lantern.  Hood awakens and also goes for a lantern.  Jeb is on to move to find Miss Hannity, who is also looking for a lantern.

However, once Jake arrives, it becomes apparent that no one is there.  The various parties assemble around Ruby's room, but nobody finds anything.  Father Seward tries to explain it away as a nightmare, but neither David nor Ruby take the hint.  Hearing the racket, one of the servants gets Ruby warm milk.  Jake suggests that Father Seward asks if this place is on an Indian burial ground, but the groggy priest can't think of a way to phrase the question without sounding strange, so he lets it go.

Finally, everyone disassembles.  Father Seward locks his room and Jake and Father Seward decide to take Ruby's room for the night.  The house settles back to sleep.

Note that many strange things have happened, but everything could easily be summarized in a few paragraphs.  However, I have a suspicion that even the minor events may be important, as suggested by the next event.

Father Seward awakens first.  Everything seems to be in order, although Ruby appears to have some sort of grease around her mouth (the paranoid priest actually makes note of the fact that her left hand is beneath the covers, which will be important momentarily).  He sniffs it, and marks that it smells like pork and barley.  Unsure of what to do, he takes a deep breath, says a quick prayer, and casts succor to ease her sleep.

She awakens, muttering about her mother.  She looks somewhat alarmed once she finds herself fully awake, and she withdraws her left arm from the covers to reveal — a ragged stump, with exposed bone and muscle.  The hand is gone.

Father Seward is surprised, but manages to keep a typically stoic façade.  He is poised to clamp a hand over her mouth to suppress the ensuing scream, but it never comes as she vomits — coincidentally answering his question as to the whereabouts of the hand by regurgitating bits of bone, tissue, and fingernail.  She immediately starts muttering about servants eating the hand.  Jake hears this commotion and awakens with a start, brandishing the shotgun.  Father Seward admonishes him to look away as he is not quite certain what to make of everything yet.  Jake follows the instruction.  Father Seward prays to God and lays on hands, hoping to regrow the hand.  Instead, he feels a strange and terrible absence, as though God is not in this place.

He then informs Jake that the young lady appears to have eaten her own hand, prompting him to vomit.  Jake again suggests that Father Seward asks about the history of the property — possibly over breakfast, which smells as though it will soon be ready — and they briefly discuss the prospect of the hand being eaten in a dream (after all, it seems unlikely for her to have actually cooked and eaten her own hand without them noticing).

It is about this time that there is a knock at the door — David Hood, along with Miss Hannity and Jeb, have come to check on Ruby and see how she is doing.  Jake explains that she is not doing well, while Father Seward sits with her on the bed, trying to comfort her despite the fact she is relatively unresponsive.

Edit: How could I forget?  As they approach her room, Miss Hannity and David Hood feel strangely full.  It is unknown if they participated in the dream-eating psychodrama — by description, they weren't there — but it's probably pretty likely.

Further information is available here: Arashi talks a little about this session — and horror and player agency and game design — over at this post on The Felling Blade.  He plays Jake, by the way.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Scenario: Relic

So, a little while ago I started running a Cthulhu Dark Ages campaign.  It tapered off (though I still have the notes for it, and hope to return to it eventually).  However, the introductory adventure, entitled "Relic," can easily stand on its own.

For this reason, I submitted it to Protodimension Magazine, but as I have not yet heard from them (this was months ago, by the way), I will assume that they are not going to publish it.

As such, I'll just host it.

In "Relic," a traveling monk comes to the investigators' home town and asks for assistance in retrieving church relics.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that all is not as it appears — the monk's strange accent and turns of speech may suggest that he is a foreigner, and the relics are unlike any ever seen by medieval Bretons.

Download it here.

If you have any questions, comments, and the like, go ahead and post them in the comments or somehow establish contact with me.  Feedback is welcome.  If it's terrible, I want to know about it and make it better (or just acknowledge the advice for next time, and leave a shrine of terrible behind).

The Week's Roundup

I haven't posted in a week?  Ye gods, man.

I'd blame it on being busy, but really, there's no excuse for that.  Anyway, here's some stuff I missed:

Deadlands session.  I hear the severed Southern belle hand is this restaurant's specialty.  Expect the writeup shortly.

I may shortly find myself in a D&D campaign.  I may be playing a Warhammer-style rat catcher as a Beastmaster Ranger.  My mousing dog may be a ratty airedale terrier.  Fortunately, in 4e, rangers can resurrect their dogs with some degree of skill, so hopefully, I will never need to face the emotional pain of a fallen hound (don't worry, that post isn't a sad tale about a dead family friend; it's a blog-appropriate post about Gleichman, Zak Smith's dog in various ConstantCon games).

I am assimilating The New Death and others for review.  It has a few flaws — there tends to be a lot of mood whiplash among the stories, as some are fantastical, some are horrific, many are anvilicious, and some are filled with many puns great and terrible — but it's probably worth spending the dollar on "The Scholar and the Moon" alone.  Basically, when it's good it's great, and when it's bad it's okay; definitely worth the read.  Expect an actual review when I have time to finish it.

I should probably also review Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (essential Paranoia reading, really) and Stranger in a Strange Land while I'm at it.  Memoirs especially is appropriate for roleplaying, as noted above.  I'm currently juggling Stranger with The New DeathMordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium and a few other roleplaying books.  Fun times.
And with that, here are a couple of things to read:

• Kenneth Hite describes game design as it relates to his eight-year-old nephew at playtime.  Read it here.

• Zak Smith fulfils a reader request about adventure design; namely, what is the minimal information one needs to a run an adventure in a given environment.  Read it here.

• Finally, Zak Smith discusses Abulafia, a random generator wiki.  He also lists some of the generators he has contributed.  Read it here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Guest Spot: The Dunwich Experiment

In September, I mentioned The Dunwich Experiment, a Cthulhu LIVE LARP I planned to attend.  As noted, I didn't, but my good friend Nicole did.  She wrote her experiences in a loose, in-character journal format, and wanted me to share them here.  Enjoy!

Among the forensic evidence taken from the town of Dunwich, MA during a police investigation in 1969 following an incident during the “Dunwich Experiment” contest held in the town, was a journal belonging to a 22 year old college student.  This and other evidence were publicly leaked when Filmways, Inc. bought American International Pictures (AIP) in 1979.

This journal belonged to Miss Allison “Ali” Hockett of Middleburg, VA, a sophomore at Georgetown University studying parapsychology, and one of the contest winners.  It is known that she left Washington, D.C. the morning of October 3, 1969, taking the Amtrak to Boston, MA.  She traveled alone.  She is among the missing and, decades later, is presumed dead.

Excerpts from the journal pertaining to the 48 hours that have become known as “The Dunwich Incident”:


Friday 10/3/69 
Just off the train, nine hours, finally in Boston.  Read up on Dunwich history, some text for class, witchy stuff.  Waiting around the bus station for other contest winners and AIP people to arrive.  Maybe someone has some reefer?

Bus from Boston to  Dunwich is taking FOREVER.  Driver says it is an accident or bad road conditions – it is getting pretty rural.  Hanging out with Tommy Argento and Mike Barker, also contest winners.  Other two never showed.  Tommy is cool, and is in a band.  He’s also from DC – WHO KNEW? – and has a hefty flask of bourbon we’ve been passing around.  Mike is a Boston local, into the club scene.

Lady from AIP seems pretty OK, young, into good music.  Tamara... something.  Her boss, Mr. Herman is such a hard ass – loud, short, and way uptight.  Some actor is here, Gene Stockton I think?  He’s slept the entire time, didn’t see him get on the bus.

Been corrected.  His name is Dean Stockwell.  He seems out of it, like he doesn’t know what’s happening.  Wasteoid.


Saturday 10/4/69 (I think.  It must be after midnight, but my watch is busted)
WHAT IS THIS TOWN.  SERIOUSLY.

Finally rolled in 10:30, a little drunk, thanks Tommy.  The town is dark, almost entirely uninhabited.  We’re brought to the general store-cum-tavern.  We’re given dinner and start to watch the film, The Dunwich Horror.  Some locals are here and they are rude.  This old man kept shouting at the projector screen every time someone said “Dun-wich”, seems the accepted pronunciation is “Dun-ich”, not surprised.  He and this other fellow also making snide comments.  Sad, because the Whately story is fascinating and although this is Hollywood BS, it is still interesting.

Then it started. 

Mr. Herman had a seizure or something – stood up started talking loudly about Silver Thomas showing us the way, and not getting out, some crap like that, and then he fell over.  Movie was stopped for that and because locals seemed not to like it.  Mr. H was OK, and we decided to turn in for the night.  Locals said we could take any empty/unlocked house; the inhabited ones all have lights and locks on.

Walked around a bit and finally found a big house (a shack, dear god) where we could all fit.  But then.  THEN.

Mike is gone.  We lost him, and he is not at the tavern.  Did he leave with that old man’s (Boomer) daughter?  I barely registered her – very quiet, mousy – but they say she went to Boston and maybe Mike went with her.  I don’t think so.  He was pretty wasted and probably wandered off somewhere.  Others agree and so off we go with the town doctor around Dunwich.  In the dark.  The whole damn town.  They have no street lights any more, so we just use flashlights.  There is no moon and it is cloudy.  It is dark, man.

So we walk.  Then we get shot at.  OH YEAH I FORGOT.  So earlier before the movie, we had talked about going to Sentinel Hill because, I mean, right?  Amazing.  So much history, so much energy.  Anyway, Tommy snuck off up there but didn’t get close because that old man Boomer followed him and was holding him up with a shotgun.

So we’re walking, gunshot, we drop.  There’s a ‘Nam vet in town (already) and he’s got tremors and flashbacks, and fuck you Dick Nixon.  Of course he wigs out (the vet).  The gunshot is B. with some other local, but he missed.  We carry on.

Every unlocked shack, every common area.  I have my EMF meter out and there are some great hot spots – 1) Doc’s cabin (does he operate?  He says it is his wiring) 2) empty field where they say a church burned down.  AMAZING!  We search the whole town and find some weird things (a creepy photo in an empty room, odd black fabric across random windows, a dead lizard, weird writing and drawings on the walls).  But of course no Mike.  If the dumb fuck went and broke his drunk neck falling in the woods, to hell with him.  My dogs are barking and I am ready for bed.

Locals are creepy and clearly distrustful of outsiders, so we’ve put furniture against the door.  Like that will stop them.


Saturday 10/4/69 (morning)
Mike came in last night.  Wasn’t in Boston.  Says he lost us in the house hunt, met with the Mayor, got a personal tour. Whatever, he’s slimy and weird, and I’m keeping clear.

I’m first up and dressed from our shack.  Got breakfast and walked the town with Doc Willett, Delmont (the vet), and Ruby Boomer, who actually DID go to Boston.  She’s still quiet and strange.  Nothing of note, though did see two weird lights – small and red, but not any bulbs I’ve ever seen.  My EMF went crazy at them, so who knows.  Didn’t see them last night, and they were bright even in the day.

Eating Lunch.  My mind is blown, expanded, sweet Tim Leary what is this place?

Went to Sentinel Hill with Tamara and Tommy (Mr. H and Delmont too, but they left).  Crazy readings at the Hill, just crazy.  This is a place of power, I can feel it.  Tamara starts talking about spirituality, and Dunwich, and history, and then she says that she hand picked Me, Tom and Mike as winners because we and she are actually blood of the Whately family and this town is ours.  Too much to write here, but it all MAKES SENSE.  This feels right. 

She had a dream last night that we did a ritual on S.H., that Ruby had mushrooms, but Tamara had nothing to place on the altar stone (still standing, by the way, just amazing) and then the Dark Man came to her and said she did it wrong and, “You are all now void”.  Then these orbs came and swallowed everyone up.  Tamara thinks the town people (Boomer esp.) know what we are and what we’re here to do (take the town, or Whately Manor, back).

We go mushroom hunting with Ruby, me, Tamara, Tommy, Mike, etc.  Try to get Mike to talk to Tamara, which he does later, but I don’t think he gets it like me and Tommy do.  Tam. wants to actually do the ritual.  Should be fun.

Boomer and the Doc are guarding Whately Manor and won’t let us in.  We need to get in.  There are things there that we need, that are ours, but they won’t let us have them.  Tamara is right, they are working against us.  Haven’t said a word about us Whately kids, but I know they know.  Tommy wants to smash a window to get in, but Tam. says no, that’ll be noticed. 

Delmont says he can pick the lock.  Doc and B. are eating now, we have to GO.


DONE.  We broke in, took everything that was left and are in our shack, furniture piled high at the door.  Looking over these things, they’re good, but they’re not what we need.  Old shaman box toy, weird bottle with golden dust, a blank notebook, and someone’s notes from an investigation in town.  Not good enough.  Delmont said there had been other things in there earlier.  T & T know that Necronomicon (WHAT SERIOUSLY?) is one, and there are other ritual components.  Official: they’re up to no good and out to get us.  They’ll end the town utterly and us along with it.  They must be stopped.  We’ve gotta get into Doc and Boomer’s houses.

We can’t leave Dunwich.  There are invisible barriers keeping us in.  Trying to get out unleashes horrors in the mind.  Others have tried, not me.  Don’t want to, but god, we can’t get out?

Planning.  Scared.  Know they’re going to try to stop us.  But we have to do this.

Something appeared outside the tavern.  It is like a pyramid sundial but not.  Weird texture.  I touched it, got electrocuted (?), it blew me back 10 feet.  Doc helped.  DO NOT TOUCH.  It shorted my EMF reader.  Boomer seemed to know what’s up, covered it with a trash bag.  Looking out our window I can just see others standing around it talking.  Don’t like this at all.

Been walking around, just walking.  Keep finding random sheets of paper with occult drawings, ritual instructions.  Something about summoning Yog-Soth- Tam doesn’t want me to write the rest.  Names have power.  Y-S then.  Y-S is the Dark Man from her dream.  He brings nothing, the god of nihilists.  This isn’t just us any more.  This is the end of the world.  Must act.  We keep the papers on us.  Know Doc and BOOMER need them for their rit.  Must stop them at all costs.  They have the Necronomicon.

Back in our shack.  This is as safe as we’ll get.  Heart won’t stop beating so hard.  Tried to talk to Doc, who seems to be friendly with Tam. but don’t know.  Don’t trust him.  His house has something radioactive, but don’t know what it is.  Ruby met us, says her daddy has power over her, she can’t hurt him because he has her hair.  What to do.

During dinner we will break into Doc’s house and Boomer’s and steal their things and torch the place.  It is the only way.

We cut off Tommy’s hair and mine is under a scarf.  Tamara is like Twiggy and has short hair and a hat so she is safe from Boomer.  Burned Tommy’s hair in the fire.  Boomer will never get it there.

Tam. talked to Ruby.  Boomer and Doc will do their ritual at Sentinel Hill at dinner.  Our plan is ruined.  We must act now. 

Back in shack.  Tommy broke in, stole Necronom from Boomer.  Tam and I to Sentinel Hill in dark and pouring rain and kicked over the fire pit and buried the ritual pages.  They’ll never find them.  We’ll win the night.

O god theyre coming for us all of them can’t run for the barriers o god were trapped

Dean Stockwell is not Dean Stockwell
The doctor can raise the dead
Tommy sold his soul to the devil for guitar skills and unleashed Y-S and the veil between this world and the next is so fractured and now Y-S will get us
Boomer is ancient
Everyone is old families – Whatelys and Bishops and everyone o my
We must do the ritual together.  It is the only way.  The only way we’ll get out.

SUNDAY
NO TIME HAVE TO GET OUT. WE ALL TALKED IN THE TAVERN AND ALL WAS WELL BUT BOOMER TOOK THE PAGES AND THE DARK MAN IS COMING AND WE WILL NEVER GET OUT.  RAN TO OUR SHACK.  IF I HIDE HERE MAYBE HE WILL FORGET AND LOOK ME OVER. 

We killed boomer and doc brought him back but hes not right and then boomer bit the other man and hes not right too.  No one can be trusted.  We failed the whatelys.

SCREAMS NOW AND IT IS THE DOC AND DEAD BOOMER IS EATING HIM I KNOW.  THE WORLD IS FALLING AWAY BUT MAYBE HE WILL FORGET MAYBE YOG SOTHOTH WILL FORGET

O god I said his name o god I forg

Friday, October 21, 2011

Diseases

So I was thinking about ergot poisoning, probably because there was recent discussion of The Crucible and any talk of old Salem makes me think of ergotism.

That, in turn, made me consider having a fantasy-style village suffering under the effects of ergotism, which made me develop this table.

I was originally considering making a table of ruins and an accompanying table of diseases, but I just decided to give you some random medieval diseases.  Maybe I'll work on the other table sometime?

Anyway, use this for the next poor schlub who begs your cleric for healing, or for the next beggar you meet in the street.  Add D&D diseases, or just different diseases, to taste.  A period-appropriate name is given in parentheses; feel free to look on the internet, though, as diseases such as ergotism and typhus have lots of colorful nicknames.  If you're the least bit squeamish, don't go searching diseases willy-nilly on the internet (for that matter, don't even go to the attached Wikipedia articles).

You could also adapt this to a what-killed-this-random-village table by switching to only fatal diseases.

Ergotism ("evil fire")
Scurvy
Plumbism ("painter's colic")
Dysentery ("bloody flux")
Dropsy
Croup
Leprosy ("lepry")
Malaria ("the ague")
Smallpox ("the red plague")
10  Typhoid fever
11  Plague
12  Cholera ("black fever")
13  Tuberculosis ("consumption")
14  Impetigo ("tetter")
15  Scabies ("seven-year itch")
16  Diphtheria ("bull-neck")
17  Scarlet fever
18  Influenza ("grippe")
19  Typhus ("jail fever")
20  Gangrene ("mormal")

Here are some additional websites for further information on these or other diseases; excellent resources for archaic disease terminology:
http://www.olivetreegenealogy.com/misc/disease.shtml
http://www.labelle.org/top_diseases.html
http://dugamer.tripod.com/id52.html

A Brief Update

Egads, man!

Between being busy and having computer troubles, I haven't been posting here as often as I would like.

Ah, well.  I should shortly return to routinely spilling wordcount into the aethers.  Expect a guest post and a review within the next week or so.  Hopefully.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Sharpened Hooks: The Terrible Old Man

Deep in the heart of the Black Moor swamp lies a decrepit hut.  The bandits who sometimes lair in the dangerous marsh will even give this place a wide berth, for in that hovel resides the Terrible Old Man.

There are lots of stories about him.  Some claim that he is simply an old man.  Others claim he is a retired adventurer of unknown profession (some even claim that his tangled mass of hair hides the horns of the supposedly dead Baarziduul the Valorous, making him not a man at all, but a tiefling).  Some claim that all realms have a Terrible Old Man, and that he is merely one incarnation.  Still others claim he is not mortal at all, but the seemingly benign avatar of some cruel god from a distant realm.

Whatever the case, few make the trek to visit the Terrible Old Man, but he actually runs a shop from his hovel.  As with Lovecraft's Terrible Old Man, it is obvious that he has some unknown source of immense wealth, because he is always well-equipped.  It is even possible that his hut is attached to an extradimensional space, having many more rooms than the outside would otherwise suggest.

Whatever the case, the Terrible Old Man will sell supplies to travelers.  However, that is not the true draw to the Terrible Old Man's hovel; he will also sell magic items to travelers.  These items are always of excellent quality, and are sold at reduced price.

However, there is a price to be paid.  Most of the items he sells are cursed.

I haven't decided on precise numbers.  Given the fact that cursed items in 4e are much easier to fix than in other editions (it just requires an hour and a successful Arcana check, although there is no way to determine an item is cursed before it is used, so there will be at least one encounter with a cursed item's burden), I'm not inclined to drop the price too low.  I was considering making magic items cost 50% of their typical price, but having a 70% chance of being cursed.  In settings or systems where curses are harder to remove, it might be reasonable to drop the price even further.

Note, however, that the Arcana check is just one way to break 4e curses; it is also possible that individual items have specific triggers.  In that case, the Terrible Old Man's bargain is a little more horrible; any cursed items acquired in this way become puzzles to be overcome, as the PCs must try different things or research the item in question before breaking its curse.

As usual, any of this stuff is open to individual Game Masters to alter as they see fit.  Messing with the numbers is key, and probably something that needs to be customized for individual campaigns.

Also note that I thought of this for D&D, but a guy selling Schmuck Bait is basically systemless, isn't it?

Edit: Also, in case there was any doubt, the fact that most of this man's items are cursed is known to the PCs.  This isn't a trick so much as an enticement — yes, most of his items are cursed, but you heard from your cousin's sister's boyfriend's niece bought functional bracers of armor there!

At that point, it's less of a trick and more of an experiment: how low must the price be to convince somebody that it's worth the risk.  For that matter, how difficult is it to remove a curse, anyway?

All these things factor into the accounting.

Crux of Eternity on Obsidian Portal

It will be a little while before everything is the way I want it, but I added Crux of Eternity to Obsidian Portal.

At the moment, all I have are the campaign logs, but I'll add more content as I have time.  For right now, you can go look at it here.

Bob the Barkeep

Having a random bartender in a fantasy world named "Bob" as a placeholder name is frequently considered lazy and uninspired.  Obviously, that's not always true, but that's the stereotype.

But...

What if that trope could be inverted?

For unknown reasons, "Bob" is considered acceptable address for barkeeps.  Since travelers on the road are common, and since they tend to meet bad ends, "Bob" is a way for everyone to maintain a safe emotional distance — the logic goes that if you never get closer than "Bob," you won't notice one way or the other if the person never returns.  There's another story about a famous barkeep named Robert who helped house escaped slaves (much like the tradition of calling British police officers "Bobbies"), but some people think that's just a legend made to fit the tradition.  It is, of course, possible that both tales are true.

It is also considered acceptable to call a barkeep "Charles," "Chuck," or "Karl" for somewhat obscure reasons.  It is sometimes acceptable to call older, female barkeeps "Mom" or "Mum," though this is not always the case, as there is always the risk of calling someone young "Mum."  It is also possible to address a lady who has lost a child as "Mum," thus risking upsetting one's host.  Some female barkeeps also stand by the "Bob" or "Charles" tradition, but for the most part, it is best to call ladies by the appropriate form of address.

Also, it is somewhat insulting to call a familiar barkeep "Bob," as one should presumably be on a first-name basis with the operator of the local pub.

I'm thinking about adding this tradition to my home game, which is why it is listed under the "Crux of Eternity" label.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Some Rambling About System

Today, James Raggi made this post.  I usually warn you about comments, but Jeff Rients writes thusly in the comments:
As far as I can tell the fundamental disconnect between the Forge and what I do is that they seem to expect the rules to do the heavy lifting. I could run the same basic thing in any of several rulesets and get basically the same results. That seems to be the opposite of what they want. I speak tentatively here because I'm not sure I ever understood what was going on at the Forge.
I've been contemplating saying a bit about system for a while and this seems like a good time.

I've heard some arguments for both sides, but I'm one of the guys who thinks that system doesn't matter.  You can run any game in any system.  You might have to make some tweaks, but ultimately, every halfway decent system is viable for whatever you want to do.

The counter-argument is that the Game Master should not have to spend extra time tweaking the rules to make it work for him.  A game should be a toolkit that's ready to use.

(I might counter-counter-argue that with two words: House Rules.)

Anyway, you can run a high-adventure game with World of Darkness, or run gritty horror in D&D (both even have some optional rules to help emphasize these genres, if you're into that sort of thing).  If you take the sanity system out of Call of Cthulhu, then you have the Basic Roleplaying System and you can run whatever you want.  Really, you can break all game engines down and then just use a rules-heavy or rules-lite engine, depending on what you're doing (use Deadlands for that Oregon Trail game you always wanted to run; use Risus for that fast-and-furious Star Wars game you always wanted to run).

Strangely, even though I feel this way, I tend not to do this.  I like the psychology behind different systems — among gaming groups, a system can be a shorthand for the sort of game you want to play.  But I still think that system is hardly a constraint for the sort of game one might like to run.

I would like to play with it, though.  I was contemplating a Star Wars game a while back — I'm rarely intrigued by established settings like Star Wars or Forgotten Realms, but there was a throwaway line somewhere that stuck with me, and I got the idea for a somewhat tragic Star Wars game — and I was going to run it in Saga Edition, but I was toying with (new) World of Darkness or Big Eyes, Small Mouth.  If I ever revisit it, I might still do that.  We'll see.

Deadlands, Part IV

Session four of our Deadlands game.  We faced a Rattler.  Nobody died.

When last we left our heroes, they had faced a cave of bandits who appeared to be somehow holding and rearing Rattlers.  Rattlers are large, burrowing worms with several pulpy tentacles around their mouths — think chthonians or graboids and you have the right idea.  Rattlers are about as frightening as shoggoths, and tend to inspire similar amounts of panic (and acquisition of heavy weaponry).

At any rate, the bandits were slain, but the worms awoke.  The juveniles ran from the cave, but the adult (dramatic irony: the adult is blinded, but can still sense our tremors; we don't know enough to notice this fact) exits the cave.  Father Seward (and his mule), Jake, and Ruby O'Flahertie all faint.  David Hood, the spindly, nervous journalist, is still up.  He's facing down a Rattler.

In other words, this session looks bad.

David makes a quick assessment and decides to go for Ruby, heft her up, and book.  Oddly, this tactic works — his zigzagging pattern keeps the worm moving after him, and he has enough adrenaline to lift Ruby and make a run for it.

In this time, Father Alexander awakens.  Assessing the situation, he pulls his gun and starts shooting at the Rattler to get its attention.  He also starts shouting to get its attention, figuring that it might give David enough time to run.  The Rattler initially goes for David, but after taking a bullet in its side, it switches to Father Alexander.  It grasps him in its tentacles and lifts him in the air.

David grabs Ruby's gun and starts firing at the thing (he actually hits Father Alexander more than the Rattler).  The Father, despite his current predicament, has an excellent view of the thing's mouth — despite the pain in his leg where a tentacle is squeezing, his gun hand is free enough to fire.  He shoots four shots down its gullet and tries to reload before it decides he's too much trouble and sets him free, dropping him as it retreats underground.

For the record, I'm pretty sure it was one wound away from death; if I had hit it one more time, I would have killed a Rattler in my third session of Deadlands.

Around this time, Jake and Ruby awaken.

We organize ourselves.  Most people have minor injuries, except for Sergeant O'Malley.  I see to him and lay on hands.  I give him my "fleshwound" story, even though everyone else saw me put my hands on him and heal his wounds.  We're about to go back to town when the rest of the police arrive.

We say some cryptic things to them, aware of how crazy we'll sound if we fully explain what just happened.  As they enter the caves, we follow with Sergeant O'Malley's blessing.  We find a huge cavern with a deep chasm.  The police lower a lantern into it, and David, Father Seward, and Ruby all look.  It's filled with corpses, some of which appear to be incubating baby worms.  David and Ruby vomit and start freaking out; Father Seward and Jake start dragging them away, and the Father tells Jake what lies over the edge.  A police officer throws a lantern into it, and a fire starts amidst the corpses in the pit.  We leave.

We start the long trek back to St. Louis with only one mule.  Eventually, the police arrive from their expedition to the caves and give us a ride.  They don't talk about what they saw.

We return to St. Louis.  Over the next few days, Sergeant O'Malley takes us to dinner and gets promoted to detective.  He gives each of us $15 for our assistance with the disappearances in town.  Father Seward buys a new suit of clothes, and David Hood is kind enough to repair his old, tattered clothes.  He also gets Ruby O'Flahertie a new dress — one that is lighter and less fancy ("a worm huntin' dress," I believe is the out-of-game remark).  Jake uses his $15 to go whorin'.

After a few days, the track is repaired and we are to return to our journey to San Francisco by way of Denver.  A porter invites Father Seward to go first, as he is old and presumably requires special attention.

When he arrives at his car, he finds the dandy who gave him the letter and playing card there.  The man explains about potential energy, saying how this energy is building.  He then admonishes Father Seward to protect his investment — being Father Seward and the others — and to not go chasing off after worms and such again.  He heals Seward's still-injured leg — burning the Father's new pants, and leaving a black scar and the stench of sulfur in the process — before taking his leave.

David enters with a porter, and is full of questions about the burned pant leg and the stench of sulfur.  Father Seward brushes him off, waiting for the porter to leave and the others to arrive.  He does change his pants, which lets him see the new suits in his bags — a mourning suit that matches the mysterious stranger's clothes, and a white suit.

When the others arrive, he explains the man's appearance, prompting the others to notice the man standing on the platform.  Only David recognizes him, as he is the man who sold him his train tickets.  Father Seward continues his story, also explaining his trip to San Francisco — years ago when he lived in Texas, he lost his daughter.  She may be alive or dead, but he hopes to find out for certain, and the man indicated that he could find the answer in San Francisco.  He finally explains that, yes, his faith has manifested itself literally, and he is able to heal the sick.  He does not know the source of this.

The train trip to Denver is uneventful.  When they arrive, a black porter (who looks suspiciously bug-eyed) who seems slow-witted and simply strange has suggested that the railway man wishes to dine with them.  She proceeds to take the four to his house by carriage.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Little More Musing About the Sandbox

I've previously mentioned the sandbox, but I don't think I've ever talked personally about my perspective on it.

As previously noted, I'm post-Hickman revolution, so linear games are somewhat familiar to me.  However, I'm a bit particular about them.

Basically, when I go into a game, I'll follow whatever hooks are thrown my way.  Basically, I'm in this game, and I'm not doing anything else at the moment, so why not do this cool thing?  If only one direction appears interesting, that's okay.

However, I don't want to see the boundaries.  Remember in Super Mario 64 when you're flying and you hit the invisible wall at the edge of the map?  Or in any video game ever where you hit a boundary that is only there for game purposes?

Well, that might be okay in video games, but it's not okay in roleplaying games.  I want to feel like I'm in a sandbox, even if I'm currently following a relatively linear story.  So, even if the story hooks are leading me one way, I want to be able to wander and chew the scenery if something more interesting catches my fancy.

D&D Encounters just had this problem: last chapter, there were two encounters wherein it was obvious that we were willing to talk our way through it (and our bard probably would have managed to do that, too).  However, since Encounters advertises a fight, combat ensued anyway.

Likewise, I've previously mentioned a game I played where death or failure did not appear to be significant risks, though I'm not certain how accurate that truly was.

Those are chafing.  I don't mind walking through the GM's plot, but I at least want that to be my choice.  The idea that I can leave the plot whenever I want is the bare minimum player agency to keep me interested.

As an alternate example, the Deadlands game in which I am currently playing appears to be linear, but that's part of the setup: some agency plans on getting the group to San Francisco, but we're basically going of our own free will.  Theoretically, if we get sidetracked or decide to do something else, we won't be stopped (though our patrons, such as they are, will likely try to return us to their path).  In practice, though, we likely won't do something else — each character is committed to this journey — but the option still appears to be there at the moment.

Like I said, the typical model among my groups appears to be a plot-in-a-sandbox, so you can follow the plot if you'd like, or you can just wander around in the sandbox if you want.  I might like to try something more sandboxy in the future, but I really don't mind following a linear plot.  Just so long as that's my decision.

Sharpened Hooks: Dead Presidents

A word of warning: if I run an occult game wherein the President "dies of natural causes" or is assassinated, this post probably contains the "how."  So, you know, spoiler alert (though I might also use this as a red herring, leading to an anticlimax, just to be contrary).  Although, to be fair, that probably would appear at the beginning: your contact suggests the "death by natural causes" isn't very natural at all.

Anyway.  The President's waste is sequestered.

I can't find this from any source I'd consider reputable, but I'll give you the ones I could find.  Check out this one (Manswers is actually where I first heard this claim), this one, and this one (somewhere in the middle, they talk about George W. Bush's urine and feces being bagged and removed).  All of these mention George W. Bush specifically, but there's some anecdotal evidence that this practice is now standard.  If I ever find a halfway reputable resource, I'll let you know.

It's probably so difficult to find information because everyone gets all giggly about feces, but it's a common claim.

The basic gist is this: the President's feces and urine are isolated for safe disposal.  In this modern era of genetic testing, this is a necessary precaution: someone could easily learn about any genetic diseases the President might have and use those against him.  For that matter, if the President takes any medicines, chemical testing would determine those and give further information to terrorists or foreign powers.

Of course, that's the claim anyway.  But what about your modern/occult/conspiracy game?

What if the Secret Service doesn't remove the waste to protect the President from genetic testing, but magical attack?

With magic, the principle of sympathy is important, so keeping the President's waste out of enemy hands has an entirely different purpose — an enemy magus could easily assassinate the President, through magic, from halfway around the world.  For that matter, more insidious practices are possible; an alchemist could easily use the purloined urine and feces to make a Presidential homunculus, and install this double as the real one.

Imagine it: a group of occultists uncover a conspiracy by which the innocuous Presidential heart attack is actually a magical assassination.  You could even combine both plots into one: the President is too hard to access, but the Vice President is not.  An alchemical double of the Vice President has been created and installed, and the President has been assassinated by magic.  Now these insane cultists control the White House, and it's up to whomever (Secret Service, CIA, secret government occult branch, lone-nut occultists) to stop them.

Note that this also applies to science fiction settings: using Presidential DNA, terrorists could tailor a virus or build a clone.

Review: Heaven and Earth

How did I forget this game?

I obtained the third edition of Heaven and Earth a few years ago on absolutely no recommendation.  I simply knew it was modern-day, and that it was surreal.  At the time, I was contemplating a small-town Mage: the Ascension game along the lines of Twin Peaks and Eerie, Indiana, or the roleplaying games Over the Edge and Unknown Armies.  It was just another small town in middle America filled with weird secrets.

So, obviously, when I came across the game called Heaven and Earth, I was intrigued.  It sounded like a source of inspiration with a ready-to-run weird town.

I was not disappointed.

The system is fine, but nothing to write home about.  You're trying to roll a die plus a modifier against a target number.  In an odd inversion, the target number is static; the difficulty determines what type of die you use.  The easiest difficulty requires you to roll d20s, while the hardest requires you to roll d4s.  As such, every player should have one of each of the common dice denominations: d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20.

As for stats, these are determined by descriptive qualities, similar to Unknown Armies or Risus.  Your "traits" are ranked as professions (so, for example, maybe you have Doctor at "Rookie").  This influences the modifiers you use when rolling that die to do, as per the example, doctor stuff.  Again, simple.

As for the game itself, the plot is the meat of it.  The game takes place in the town of Potter's Lake.  PCs are expected to be newcomers to the town, or people returning after a prolonged absence (say, at least a decade or two).  This is important.

Ultimately, the town itself is a sandbox, but there are certain constraints on the PCs that make things a bit more linear.  It's pretty obvious that uncovering the secrets of the town will probably be the focus, but doing so has a tendency to bring all the weirdness in the town to a head.  Obviously, this may interest some people and turn others off.  It all depends on your feelings on the subject, and how much trust you have in your GM.

As for the secrets of the town, they're big.  I'm not inclined to mention it, because players shouldn't know quite why the town is so weird, but the game's metaplot draws upon some of the big budget stuff from real-world mythology — fully understanding the town and why you're in it throws you into the fight for humanity's destiny.  If you're interested enough to run, or just don't care, you can read some spoilery reviews here, here, and here (now that I've remembered the game, I'd love to run it, so you may want to search cautiously if you'd like me to run it for you someday).

A note, though: running the metaplot as-is requires dedication.  As with, say, Promethean: the Created, losing a player can be devastating.  Character development is important, and while a one-shot in Potter's Lake can be interesting, this game really shines with campaign play.  If you tweak the backstory (or even if you don't), you might also be able to use it in an episodic road campaign ("As you're driving down the road, you pass a sign that reads, 'Potter's Lake: 3 miles.'") as a ready-made setting.

Ultimately, I'd recommend it — the system is fine, but the true gem is the backstory.  If you want a modern-day game with a weird, surreal, horrific setting, you should look at this one.  Even if you're not a fan of the mythos, I suspect you'll still appreciate the backstory.  Even if you don't, you can likely use the setting as a resource for your own campaigns.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Little Thing About GNS Theory

I have previously mentioned GNS Theory, and I think noisms's recent post on the subject is fairly accurate.  It's a nice thought exercise, but broad classification tools tend to ignore the weird little idiosyncrasies that people have.

I might be inclined to disagree with his statement about "simulationists," though; it's probably pretty small, but I think there is a base of people who like roleplaying games purely for the world-building aspects rather than the playing-a-game aspects or the telling-a-story aspects.

I might also direct readers to brave the comments, as Zak's comment on GNS ignoring the fact that roleplayers might want different things from day-to-day is also worth considering.

For every comment you read, however, you will spend another month each year in Hades, though, so keep your sojourn a short one.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Smudge

I came across a collection of weird, creepy, fetish photographs the other day.  There is nothing overtly inappropriate about them; they just ooze wrongness.  You'd probably find these pasted on the walls of a serial killer's den (or in the collection of some Unknown Armies occultist), which is why I pass them to you.  They might be good for atmosphere.

I give you the article on Smudge over at Flavorwire.

Review: Big Eyes, Small Mouth

Big Eyes, Small Mouth (frequently abbreviated as BESM and referring to the typical facial features of anime characters) is a relatively rules-lite, anime-themed game.  If you're unfamiliar, Wikipedia provides.

I haven't messed with third edition, but I have run some games using the second edition ruleset.  It's simple, but it's pretty solid.  The basic mechanic is simple: characters have three stats, Body, Mind, and Soul.  These each range from 2-12 (4 is average).  Roll 2d6 under the appropriate stat, and you succeed at your roll.  Simple.

Complications arise primarily in character creation.  In addition to stats, characters may also use their points (it's a point-buy system) to buy Attributes, which are special things your character can do.  Maybe you're very attractive, or a gifted mechanic, or maybe you have magic or mutant powers; Attributes represent all of these.  Finally, there is an optional skill system (skills just act as modifiers to dice rolls), as well as the obligatory merit/flaw system (you can take disadvantages to get more points at character creation).

As for the anime part, it's primarily flavoring.  The book has anime artwork and suggests certain source materials and themes, though the game itself is a workable universal roleplaying game system.

As for combat, it's not necessarily deadly (it really depends on the power level of characters), but it is quite fast.  A typical combat turn requires an attack roll, an enemy's defense roll, and damage is a fixed number.  Character creation is the most complex part, and once that's finished, the system is pretty easy.  There are some optional rules that can add complexity (like adding variable damage, or the skill system), but the game is pretty modular.

There is one small complaint: as written, the attack/defense rolls are absolute.  That is, if you roll your attack, you hit.  If you roll defense against that attack, it misses.  As such, combat can drag.  It slows individual rolls, but I've taken to comparing the margins of success for attack and defense, and awarding the contest to whomever has the best degree of success.

Being a universal system, BESM has no setting as such.  There are a couple of books that give statistics for existing anime settings (such as Trigun and Serial Experiments Lain) as well as anime-themed fantasy and horror settings.  Third edition establishes a multiversal "core setting" similar to GURPS Infinite Worlds.

BESM uses Guardians of Order's Tri-Stat System, and as such, is compatible with other Tri-Stat products (to show how versatile it is, Tri-Stat has been used for a superhero game, a movie tie-in, and the latest edition of Tékumel).

Medieval Fantasy Demographics

So I was wandering around the internet, and I came across this little gem.  In this post at Mighty Thews and Non-Euclidean Geometry, the author links to The Domesday Book, a browser-based application that generates medieval demographics.  If you're running any game on the D&D axis, the applications are obvious.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

An Aggregation of Stuff

I've amassed some stuff that could generate separate blog posts, so I'm lumping them all together under the idea that if they're all miscellaneous, they can hang out together.

At Dungeons and Digressions, we have a post about pigeon towers.  It's way cooler than it sounds.  Put a pigeon tower in your fantasy/medieval village today!

Next, there's the classic speech from Philip K. Dick, "How to Build a Universe that Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later."  It features several weird events and talks about the basic nature of reality.  It's worth reading for philosophers or world-builders.

Finally, something I was contemplating: with all the vitriol on the internet, you'd think this is a modern phenomenon.  It isn't.  Modern scholars think Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was a subtle attack by the mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) on the increasing abstraction in mathematics.  Wonderland runs on these principles, and that's why it's completely crazy.  This article, this article, and this article all discuss it.

So there you have it.  You, too, can turn your scathing complaint into a beloved work of literature.

GM Styles

I found it!

I was looking for Zak Smith's post about GM styles.  Sure enough, I found the one about Jeff Rients and the one about his own style.

To summarize: Jeff is enthusiastic and seems very attentive, Zak is impartial and almost bored.

I like both, and actually think I oscillate between the two.  At first, I'm pretty reserved and just set the scene.  But then something happens, and get more enthusiastic with a voice almost giddy with murderous glee.  Likewise, I occasionally offer suggestions, which almost always imply doom — my players consider my suggestions, but rarely act on them (or at least they don't act on them without careful consideration).

Though it's difficult, I might like to try to switch my style in the future.  We'll see.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Epic Characters vs. The Other Guys

Last night before D&D, one of the players was talking about superhero video games, and how one doesn't want to play Superman's trainee, one wants to play Superman.

That may be true, particularly in video games (did you actually put Magma in your party in X-Men Legends?), but I'm not sure it's totally accurate.

In roleplaying games especially, both can be fun.  Sometimes you want to play the Fellowship with all the power and responsibility that entails, and sometimes you just want to play, say, David Wong and John Cheese.

Then again, these guys also lend themselves to different playstyles.  The Justice League is more likely to get railroaded into some grandiose plot, but the Mystery Men are more likely to chew on the scenery and muck around in the sandbox.  It's likely that some groups naturally tend more toward one over the other based on personal preference.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Calling All Artists

Zanazaz plans on releasing a roleplaying book called Kinship, and he's looking for artists (and proofreaders and playtesters, for that matter).  There's no money, but you'll get a copy of the finished product and a credit in the book (so, you know, you get the geek cred of being a published artist).

Inquiries should be directed to zanazaz at yahoo dot com.  Further information is available here, and again at the tag for Kinship.

More on the Sandbox (and Bonus Random Musings)

So I've previously talked a little about railroading vs. sandbox, and will likely do so again.

For the moment, though, go check out this post at Digital Orc.  It's a very simple thing, but it's a thing worth considering.

Along the lines of the sandbox, I'm currently fiddling with some things, including converting that AD&D 1e module for my 4e players (it's going well, but since I'm reworking one of the dungeon levels from scratch, it's a little slow going because the dungeon layout is rather particular).  I'm also trying to find a halfway decent hex map for my Crux of Eternity map, but it's big.  If I go with 5-mile hexes, this thing is 125 by 100 hexes.

If I manage to make one in a digital format (I'm currently playing with Hexographer, so I very well might), I'll probably post it here for your general perusal.  Note that I have already drawn a map, but I finally decided that a hex map would probably be more workable.

Maybe I should break it down into sections?  I'll play with it and figure it out.

Pestilence

Earlier this week, this post over at Jeff's Gameblog showed a short film taking place during England's plague years.  A good piece of cinema if you happen to be mucking about in that timeframe, or in any setting with an epidemic.

You can also view said film below:

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Realism vs. Fantasy

So I saw a blog post recently, but I can't remember what it was.  It was an OSR blog, and I was thinking about the post lately, and...

...that's it.  Maybe someone will recognize the rant and shove me in the right direction?

Anyway, the author put forth the proposition that you shouldn't care about rational world design when it comes to the dungeon.  These monsters don't need to live in a logical ecology that worries about energy distribution; these monsters need to symbolically represent our fears.  I'm paraphrasing my rapidly decaying memory of the article when I say that orcs represent our fear of the prehuman ancestors we killed, while liches represent our fear of our politicians ruling us forever; nobody cares about how an owlbear gets nutrition out of the vermin scurrying around the dungeon, because the symbolism behind him is more important than ecology.

It gets back to noisms talking about non-banal D&D (and collating some stuff on the same topic here), and Zak's rebuttal here.

Basically: do you want to make a logical setting, or do you want to explore a weird, fantastical world of symbolism?

Some games imply an answer — we tend to just expect a certain level of realism from modern-day games — but the answer is highly subjective and pretty complex.

For example, you can bring the fantastical into the modern world — just watch anything made by David Lynch.

Also note some of the advice in the above blog posts.  You can always have a place where the fantastic holds sway.  Maybe civilization is held in place by the psychic residue of its residents, but the wild is wild.

As normal, something to consider.

Sharpened Hooks: The Aeolipile

I've been wanting to develop this for a while.

I once attended a lecture wherein the sociology professor discussed how one should not judge other cultures as "primitive" because they might just have different values than we do.  As his example, the Romans had a steam engine, but it was just a toy, a curiosity; they didn't see any practical use for it.

I looked it up today, and found this device to be an aeolipile.  Initially described by Hero of Alexandria in the first century A.D. (though Vitruvius described an aeolipile earlier than Hero, it is not clear whether it was the same device or not), the aeolipile was less a toy that a child would use and more a weird piece of equipment from The Sharper Image.  A simple steam engine, the aeolipile (as it was) is a curiosity with no practical purpose.  But it's still a steam engine.

Suppose, however, that Hero of Alexandria or another innovator really understood the implications of this device.  If anybody really understood it and developed a high-pressure steam engine, the Roman Empire would suddenly go steampunk.  Rome might still fall — a steam-powered Rome could probably more effectively defeat enemies, but it was internal strife that really shattered the Empire — but it would truly be a juggernaut astride the world while it lasted.  Even the Dark Ages would look different; imagine Charlemagne and a young Catholic Church with Industrial Age technology at their disposal.  The whole thing could quickly go the same way as the Civil War in Deadlands — picture the Battle of Hastings, fought with medieval tactics but powered by Victorian and World War I technology.  A lot of natural defenses can be nullified by mortars and other weapons.

Note that this also assumes little differences from history as we know it; it's highly likely that the varying technology would cause history to take a much different shape.  Perhaps, instead of the Dark Ages, the fall of Rome would be followed by a scientific revolution.  However, given the situation in Europe, this scientific revolution might very well begin in the quiet contemplation of the monasteries, turning the Catholic Church into a haven of scientific thought.  In this alternate history, scientific thought would probably be considered something one does in the service of the Church, as a method of understanding the beauty of God's creation.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bones

It has been brought to my attention that Dean Stockwell makes collages out of dice.  That is all.

Foiled Again...Again!

Well, after narrowly avoiding Filth Fever infection during the last D&D Encounters game, I was bitten by a diseased rat while in the sewers.  Now my poor magus is stumbling around, sweating like Nixon.

Sharpened Hooks: The Slender Man Mythos (addendum)

Note: If you do use the Slender Man as the eco-terrorist, ultraviolent Lorax mentioned in the last post, he and his druids are probably even more violent and spiteful in Athas.  Druids in Dark Sun are...intense.

Then again, since I mentioned the Black Lodge, maybe the Slender Man is merely a cultivator of garmonbozia.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sharpened Hooks: The Slender Man Mythos

Unsurprisingly, here be spoilers.  You have been warned.

Also, there's a lot of exposition before I discuss this in terms of roleplaying, so just bear with me.

A friend recommended Marble Hornets, only explaining that it is a horror series on YouTube, and it is somehow related to Creepypasta.  I started watching it.

It's pretty good, although the acting is a bit wooden.  It's well-paced, though, and has a lot of neat concepts — in execution, it has similarities to John Dies at the End, primarily in some of the creepy events and the unreliability of perception (Marble Hornets has much less humor, and shies away from crude humor entirely).

Also, the Slender Man isn't quite a spoiler — you catch a glimpse of him in episode 1, and can pretty well figure out where everything is headed.

All-in-all, I'd recommend Marble Hornets.  It's a time investment, but try the first twenty for a good cross-section; if it falls flat, you haven't wasted your time on the whole series (and if you find it too frightening, as some viewers do, you probably won't make it all the way through, but at least you know).

Of course, this isn't a review of Marble Hornets.  This is more a discussion of the Slender Man mythos.  The following information may be repeated on the above TV Tropes entry, so feel free to skim as necessary (though I'd recommend reading both, as each will likely emphasize different things).

Before Marble Hornets, I was aware of this phenomenon.  I knew that he originated from a Something Awful thread within the past ten years, he is tall and thin and wears a business suit, and he steals people away.  Or something.

After seeing Marble Hornets and mucking around in the internet hive-mind, I learned some stuff.

As it turns out, the Slender Man was created in 2009 on a Something Awful thread entitled "Create Paranormal Images" (I somehow thought it was earlier).  The concept went viral pretty quickly; people started developing the Slender Man in an exercise of collaborative storytelling across the Web (most typically wikis, blogs, and YouTube; all the classic Web 2.0 buzzwords).  Though stories do not necessarily agree on his capabilities, the following attributes have been codified enough to repeat throughout media:

• He's tall and thin and wears a black business suit.  He is usually depicted standing at about ten feet tall, though he is occasionally depicted indoors, presumably with standard eight-foot residential ceilings (it's possible he can alter his body proportions, like Cthulhu).  His face is indistinct, either because he appears differently to each person, or because he doesn't have a face.

• He can stretch his limbs, or grow extra limbs, or grow tentacles.  This is used to catch prey, to induce fear in prey, and to hypnotize prey.  Bottom line: his limbs and stature should appear unnerving, disproportionate, and distinctly unnatural.  The Slender Man is hardly the Vitruvian Man, instead residing in the Uncanny Valley.

• He is typically encountered in wooded areas.  His tall, thin appearance is reminiscent of a tree — there are suggestions that this is camouflage, and he is either a man impersonating a tree, or a tree impersonating a man (note that "man" is not an accurate description in either case).  This further relates to the idea that he might be a nature spirit (probably a vengeful one who kills intruders in his woods) or a member of the Fair Folk.

• He is associated with abnormal and UFOlogy events, such as electromagnetic interference and missing time (and his presence can upset animals).

• He is typically invisible, only appearing to his victims.  He may also be captured on film, even by people who have not yet seen him.  This does appear to be the beginning of a cycle that attracts his attention, though.

• The Slender Man has no canonical origin; only hints are provided.  In addition to the above theories, some have suggested that he's a member of the restless dead.  The most enduring idea is that he's a tulpa — we dreamed him into being, and now we have to live with that fact.  In that case, he literally didn't exist until Victor Surge made his post on the Something Awful forums in 2009.

• Maybe the Slender Man can die, but nobody's figured out how to do it yet.  Presumably, this is for narrative reasons (if you kill him, you basically end all Slender Man blogs currently running), but it's equally possible that he cannot be killed.

I'm intrigued by the mythos because it has all the good hallmarks of a roleplaying scenario, and there are a lot of resources in place.  You could easily do this two ways in a modern day game:

1) Say the characters are friends of somebody, like Jay from Marble Hornets.  Give them a DVD with the first, say, 18 episodes.  Say that came in the mail, but Jay's gone missing.  Let them pick up the investigation where he left off.

2) The PCs run afoul of the Slender Man, but they have help — they can use all the resources on the internet.  So, they can ask M for advice, and peruse what others have done.

I like this because I love making handouts, but making short films for your PCs to find can be rather time-consuming (although I still plan on doing it when I have a good idea that I can easily implement).  This not only generates enough content to keep them busy for weeks or months or years of gaming, it creates a ready-to-run sandbox plot for your PCs; you need to keep moving to avoid the Slender Man, and hopefully you can find enough data to actually defeat him.  Weird things will happen along the way.

Depending upon the setting (the GM could always run this game in an established modern setting like the World of Darkness or Call of Cthulhu, after all), the PCs might encounter other weirdness, as well.

One more thing: the Slender Man is typically postmodern, but the astute will recognize strains of UFO mythology and the Fair Folk.  Carl Sagan connects all these concepts in his book The Demon-Haunted World (you can find the book in pdf format here), suggesting that fairies and aliens are all components of a common psychological construct among humans, connected with dreams and sleep paralysis.  As such, it's entirely possible to include the Slender Man in historical games or fantasy games (for that matter, you could run a psychological thriller where the Slender Man is all in the PCs' heads).  Here's an example, incorporating Slender Man mythology in D&D:

The twisted, gnarled woods to the east are best avoided.  The trees are spindly — useful for kindling, but typically too small for timber.  Some might use the wood for simple huts if the forest were not haunted.

Many tales are told about those woods — that the forest is filled with strange, fey predators; that the forest holds a cult, or even stranger inhabitants; or that the forest even holds a portal leading to a forgotten and ancient temple of some old dualism religion.

The truth is this: the region was once a place of tall trees, guarded by treants and all manner of plant creatures.  It is entirely possible that a gate to another plane once existed in these woods (in fourth edition, these woods could be close to the Feywild).  Some previous settlement scattered the guardians of this place, scouring the land for timber and coal.  Poorly-considered agricultural practices stripped the land of nutrients, nearly ruining it forever.

Something happened.  Maybe one of the creatures became corrupted by the horrors wrought upon the land, or maybe a vengeful druid cast one final spell.  Since that time, something horrible has stalked the forest, and no one dares enter those woods.  The forest has since regrown.

Now, the forest's only inhabitants are a group of masked druids who worship the nameless thing that defends the forest.  It is tall, pale, and faceless.  Clad in black robes, it wanders the forest — it attacks intruders relentlessly, disemboweling them and impaling them on the trees as a warning.  This creature might be immortal, but no one has ever survived the woods long enough to investigate and research it.

The ultimate motives of the druids are unknown; worship is merely the most likely explanation.  Some claim the druids may wish to keep interlopers away from the woods, while others claim they wish to actively bring more sacrifices for the Slender Man.

Edit: There's now a brief ramble on the Slender Man on the next post.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Liquid Green Stuff?

I am unfamiliar.  (I mean, it's new, so that's hardly surprising.)  Games Workshop apparently just released a liquid version of the popular modeling epoxy.  This post at Porky's Expanse provided a link to this review at Targets' painting blog.

Perhaps it will be of interest for any miniature artists out there?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Blog Post Aggregation

So I happened to come across a couple of notable blog posts.

This post at Tears of Envy gives a link to Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor as well as a College Humor video about the same topic.  I was never the sort to get up in arms about that sort of thing, but at the same time, I don't think I've ever had a female NPC (or PC, for that matter) in revealing armor.  So there you go.  The link, above, is also just a good resource for images of medieval/fantasy women, so if you need a good character reference picture, you might as well look around there.

Looking around on Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor then brought me to the D&D for Dads series at Art by Stowe.  This is a series of resources to bring D&D to children ten and younger, a topic about which I have previously written.  You can also get a pdf file of some sheets at this megaupload link, though I have not yet had the opportunity to examine the document itself.

Review: Unknown Armies

You did it.

Unknown Armies is my favorite game.  I may have mentioned this before?

I've heard it described as Quentin Tarantino's Call of Cthulhu.  The revised edition has the subtitle, "A roleplaying game of power and consequences."  The original edition has the subtitle, "A roleplaying game of transcendental horror and furious action."

That's fairly accurate.

Unknown Armies takes the basic premise of Call of Cthulhu and inverts it: rather than the horror arising from the fact that humanity is basically impotent and powerless in a cruel and uncaring universe, the horror arises from the fact that humanity has ultimate power (and ultimate responsibility).  You did it.

This isn't obvious at first, of course.  A typical starting character has had an odd experience or two, and now seeks the secrets of the occult underground.  The more one explores the occult underground, the more one learns about the secrets of the world, and the more your ultimate responsibility makes sense.

Before you hit the high-concept premise, though, you find the weirdness of the setting.  Postmodern magic is the rule; there's a ritual that requires you to wrap yourself in VHS magnetic tape as a ritual component.  A thousand little conspiracies vie for power — the more attention-grabbing ones are a cult of pornographers and a group hidden within the corporation of an iconic American brand.  Having access to magic gives you power, but also tends to limit you in ways that make being mundane a perfectly viable option (as the game says, using a gun is easier than using magic, and scrying isn't nearly as useful as satellites and cell phones).

I'm not inclined to say much — like many occult/conspiracy games, the game benefits heavily from secrecy — but I highly recommend it for the setting alone.  It starts out modern and familiar, but quickly gets weirder the deeper you go.

As for the system, it is fast and elegant.  Like Call of Cthulhu, it's a d100 system, but it skews lower than most.  The average stat (Body, Speed, Mind, or Soul) runs at 50%, but the average skill is considered professional around 30%.  However, that 30% assumes you are in a life-threatening situation — a General Education of 30% only makes you roll a 30 or less on a d100 if you are, say, completing a math test with a gun to your head.  So, rather than taking penalties when the going gets rough, you tend to get bonuses when things are less tense.  As one would suspect, this helps speed the game along.

Skills are also freeform.  Rather than choosing from a skill list (though they do have examples), you can invent your own skills.  The GM applies common sense as to whether a skill applies, so even a narrow skill should still be useful (for example, 17th Century French Art might also cover your General Education skill, so that you know the basic things everyone should know, but you just happen to be most knowledgeable about your particular specialty).  I've heard complaints about that system, but I actually like it because I tend to worry less about where to put my points — my character is still appropriately well-rounded if I have too few, and I can always think of more descriptive qualities if I have too many points.

There are a few other peculiarities of the system.  Combat is fast (that one d100 roll tells whether or not you hit, and how much damage you do) and frequently deadly (for example, a critical hit instantly kills or incapacitates the opponent); I've run a couple of one shots, and combat usually lasted two rounds, ending with an unconsciousness or a death.  For that matter, the combat chapter opens with six ways to avoid a fight (which I thought was a brilliant touch).  People who are not combat veterans take sanity checks just for being attacked, so it's entirely possible to end a combat by shooting at someone (in a one shot, a brainwashed terrorist who had never actually been in a violent situation surrendered when a character fired at him, missed, and killed someone else; he was so shaken that he ran and hid).  Also, though this can be done in any system, Unknown Armies rules state that the GM should track all hit points, only describing character conditions in terms of actual injuries and impressions (you have a bullet wound in your right shoulder and you think your left leg is broken; you feel a little light-headed and the edges of your vision pulse red).  This uncertainty helps keep characters from being totally cavalier about combat, as they never know how close they are to dying.

As for the sanity system, the downward slide of Call of Cthulhu is, instead, a delicate balancing act in Unknown Armies.  If you're in the middle, you're vulnerable to shocks, but you're otherwise okay.  If you're at one end, you're a pile of quirks and mental illnesses.  If you're at the other end, you're highly-resistant to further mental shocks, but you're a sociopath, incapable of basic human empathy.

As for magic, that's one of the secrets of the setting, but as previously noted, magic comes with its own drawbacks, typically constricting the magician's behavior.  As such, normal mortals have an edge in the setting because they can still relate to their fellow humans without risking their magic (and as noted, modern technology is frequently more reliable than magic effects, anyway).

If you like modern occult conspiracy settings, I highly recommend this one.  If I ever have the time to run on Constantcon, I was contemplating Unknown Armies because it's so fast.  Though I should really just awaken early one morning for the Caves of Myrddin, because they sound awesome.  I mean, the caves descend into the upper levels of Hell, how could they not be awesome?

Edit (5-9-2016): If you liked this review, check out my review of Unknown Armies, third edition, or my actual play report for UA3.

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