Monday, December 17, 2018

Flailceratops for D&D 5e

Since I've been running fifth edition a fair amount, my version of the Temple of the Snail is likely to be there, located in the Heathwood of the Sorrowfell Plains.  Since it gets referenced, here's a fifth edition-compatible version of the flailceratops from Vornheim:

This time with sick Aeron Alfrey art!
Flailceratops
Huge monstrosity, unaligned
Armor Class 14 (natural armor)
Hit Points 152 (16d12+48)
Speed 30 ft.
Str 22 (+6), Dex 9 (-1), Con 17 (+3), Int 2 (-4), Wis 11 (+0), Cha 5 (-3)
Senses blindsight 60 ft., tremorsense 60 ft., passive Perception 10
Languages
Challenge 10 (5,900 XP)
Trampling Charge.  If the flailceratops moves at least 20 feet straight toward a creature and then hits it with a flail head attack on the same turn, that target must succeed on a DC 15 Strength saving throw or be knocked prone.  If the target is prone, the flailceratops can make one stomp attack against it as a bonus action.

Actions
Multiattack.  The flailceratops either makes three flail head attacks against any targets of its choosing, or a stomp and a tail attack against different targets.
Flail Head.  Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 10 ft., one creature.  Hit: 25 (3d12+6) bludgeoning damage.
Stomp.  Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 10 ft., one creature.  Hit: 22 (3d10+6) bludgeoning damage.  The target must make a DC 15 Strength saving throw or be knocked prone.
Tail.  Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 10 ft., one creature.  Hit: 19 (3d8+6) bludgeoning damage.

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Temple of the Snail

This started as an exercise to figure out how to get players into a game for a session or two without having to jump through any narrative hoops to justify their existence.  (Although I'm often fond of our usual "yeah, you're just there," that could get somewhat schizophrenic if new players are constantly cycling in and out.)  It somehow turned into a weird cosmology thing, and a potential site for your adventurers to encounter.  Or loot, if they're the standard gang of monsters and psychopaths.

Hidden from mortal eyes by the gods themselves (or so the legends say), the Valley of the Snail may exist locally to the realm in which it is found, although it seems equally likely that it travels the planes, slowly slouching from realm to realm on an arcane schedule.  The valley is occasionally found by accident, by travelers in dire need, but is more commonly found by people who already know where it is located, whether by personal experience, anecdote, or ancient treasure map.

As pretty as the 5e art is, I still dig the Alan Hunter line work from the '81 Fiend Folio best.
When found, the valley is an idyllic forested valley which has no standard random encounters for the place in which it is found.  Instead, it is host to several snails of various varieties.  It also hosts 1d8+4 flail snails at any given time (they show up in the Fiend Folio and Volo's Guide to Monsters, among other sources).  If left undisturbed, the flail snails will be docile.  There is also a 10% chance that a flailceratops (from Vornheim, page 23) will be present.

If a flail snail is mortally wounded and begins wailing, there is a 10% chance every minute that an angry flailceratops will arrive.  Likewise, a wailing flail snail will enrage all other creatures in the valley.

Sweet Sabbath line work this time.
In the middle of the Valley of the Snail sits the Temple of the Snail.  Made of a combination of wood and stone, it appears of vaguely recent manufacture, but that is only because its remaining Caretaker maintains it and replaces decaying pieces.  The site of the shrine, and the intrinsic space of the temple, is millennia old.  Many of the recycled stones are worn very smooth by the passage of centuries.

Whatever ancient race built this place (I went with elves, but you can pick whatever aeons-old, prehistoric weirdos you want) believed that the truest expression of divinity was the Great Cosmic Flailsnail that carries the planes upon its shell.  As part of their ancient duty to defend the realms, they managed to harness the power of the flailsnail to summon heroes to their aid.  The precise mechanism is unclear, although most scholars think it has something to do with the realms of Dream — they either summoned the echoes of famous heroes from their legends in Dream, or perhaps they snatched the heroes themselves from their own slumber as they lay dreaming in the Snail Quarter.  Regardless, they were capable of summoning legends to their aid, to bolster their always-small numbers.

The Great Cosmic Flailsnail as illuminated by His Holiness, Sage Stneir.  Probably pronounced like "Steiner."
Of that ancient kingdom, almost none remain; the Caretaker is the sole remaining member, and the sole inhabitant of the temple.  (The current Caretaker in the Sorrowfell Plains is Lady Dul'besibrara Melithlylth'wyn, a Level 20 eladrin paladin with an Oath of the Ancients that allows her to maintain her unaging vigil.  But again, determine whatever long-lived tie to an ancient epoch you want.)  Although, as previously noted, allegedly "dead" civilizations intersect with the current age all the time, so you never know when you might meet another representative from outside of linear time.  (So if you want to make things more complicated, maybe the PCs meet an ancient sage who claims the Caretaker is an impostor.  But I digress.)

The Temple of the Flailsnail holds a massive flail snail shell in its tabernacle, potentially worth 50,000gp to the right buyer for anyone who can move the five-ton hulk.  However, religious scholars and occultists might recognize the shell as practically beyond value, as it is but a pale reflection of the Great Cosmic Flailsnail, a dim echo of the vast beast's influence.  Those trained in the old ways can chip away bits of the shell to make what are termed "snailstones," or "herostones" for those who lack poetry in their souls.

While the Sect of the Flailsnail could flawlessly extract and polish snailstones to assist their planar vigil, the current Caretaker can only produce cracked, flawed things.  (Some scholars think the shell has a high talc and magnesium component due to similarities with magical soapstones, but then again, magic-users are always trying to categorize things they do not understand and are outside of their context.)  A modern snailstone activates according to an erratic cosmic schedule, summoning heroes as the ancient Sect did.  These heroes of legend are not confused about their current predicament, and are usually predisposed to be friendly to the wielder.  (Although exceptions no doubt exist.)  They disappear as mysteriously as they arrive.  Assume they appear and disappear in an appropriately psychedelic flash of Kirbyesque colors.

If you don't have that Kirby Krackle in your games, what are you even doing?
In game terms, a player character holding a snailstone is perfect justification for a guest-starring player to bring their favorite weirdo into your game for a session without any context or lead-up, just arriving without fanfare and leaving when they have to go.  I guess you could also use it to provide additional exposition and links to ancient conspiracies, giving guest stars pieces of information about distant epochs (assuming they are indeed legendary heroes from archaic days).

Friday, December 7, 2018

Quivering Whims Press

Six years ago, as a throwaway joke in my D&D campaign, the PCs discovered some hastily-written smut that purported to be the true tales of their adventures.  As is often the case, that joke snowballed and turned into a publishing house, Quivering Whims Press.  Their main offices are located in Tor Valuum, Anhak, but they have a major satellite office in Scandshar, as well as satellite offices throughout the Known World (and possibly across others, as well).

They're the local equivalent of a publisher of dime novels and pulp trash (and they publish an awful lot of erotica) — if any famous artists have come out of Quivering Whims, it's likely been by accident, the first half-dozen or so works by someone destined for bigger and better things.  It's pretty clear that Quivering Whims is successful by volume more than quality of writing, although it's not entirely clear how they publish such large volumes in a world that barely has printing presses.

The mysteries of anachronistic fantasy worlds.

In addition to the aforementioned Tales of the Shields of the Sorrowfell, they have a few other popular offerings, including:

  • The adventure stories of Fap-hard and the Gay Mouser, of the fictional city of Yankmore, written by one “Slits Liber.”
  • The adventure stories of Elprick, written by one “Michael Morecock.”
  • Confessions of a Damned Lady, and the accompanying play, Strumpet of Blood, written by Orleck the Great (how they got a hold of a story from Cinder is beyond me).
  • Dusk, by the Dwell Family.

You can hardly be said to be a famous adventuring company if you haven't been lampooned by Quivering Whims Press, or so the common wisdom goes.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Improvisation



I improvise a fair amount while GMing — I usually do whatever prep I'm going to do, and then react to whatever the PCs do with whatever tools I have available.  (A random name list is essential, particularly since I appear to be consulting notes when referencing or generating names, so this NPC appears Important™.)  It's why I dig the mid-part of a campaign: in the beginning, you have to establish lots of facts and generate content, but in the middle, you're just riffing off whatever has already been established.  I'd be hard-pressed to say how much of what I run is improvisation, just because it doesn't feel like it; I'm just running off facts that have already been established, and bringing in new information as needed.

So I was pleased as punch about a month ago when I managed to run a session almost totally on the fly.  (I used to run like that all the time, but it doesn't happen as often anymore.)  I'm running Frostbitten & Mutilated, and in the previous session, my players accidentally unleashed a demon that rampaged across Rottingkroner.  They subsequently decided that the road to Nornrik was a better place to be than in the city, so they fled.  So all my prep involved generating some notable sites along the western road, and then letting random encounters do the rest.  (Based on my map, the north road leads to the hexcrawl in the book, while the west and south roads lead to Nornrik.  The south road curves around a mountain range, and so is longer but safer; the west road cuts directly through the mountains, but is less-traveled and more dangerous.)

They head west.  They meet a new PC (playing the Doctor class from The Undercroft), bandage their wounds from fighting in the city (and so stop, only a couple of miles outside Rottingkroner), and are just in time to get slammed by an ice storm.  They camp, and first thing in the morning, a frost giant rolls up.  Three PCs — including the new doctor they just met! — die in the carnage, while the survivors and their hirelings flee back to Rottingkroner.

That's where the improvisation starts.  One PC wants to start robbing houses to build up their finances for another expedition, and so sends the sneaky little pixie to investigate the wealthier houses in town.  A roll on a random table yields a diorama of a recent battle the PCs had, which is clearly going to be the fight with the giant.  I like that result because I also know it will entirely creep them out and inform whatever they do next.

While the pixie reports back and the new PCs show up (and I think there was pizza in there somewhere), I consult some more random tables, this time from Vornheim.  (It sounds like they're gunning for patronage from this obviously weird, rich person, so I know I'll need them fleshed out.)  A couple of rolls, a roll on a random name chart, and suddenly I have the owner.  (And I happen to have an appropriate picture on hand, which I think really sold the whole thing.)  Another roll for a random quest element mentions something about an ossuary holding demon bones, which sounds sufficiently like Elzemon and the Blood-Drinking Box from Chaos Rising to merit its inclusion.

I have all that done by the time they decide to show up at the house and confront this lady, and so they meet the beautiful and mysterious Bera Saemundsdottir, who is clearly using her husband's money to research occult subjects.  (One of the PCs seemed to really hit it off with Bera.)  She wants this dangerous box retrieved from a rival, and the PCs agree to it.  (And now are trying to figure out how to rope in hirelings to feed blood to this damn box.)

As far as I can tell, none of the players noticed the changeover.

There's a Mike Mearls bit where he talks about the GM being the most engaged when the player characters change plans or mess with stuff, and that's absolutely true.



I was incredibly engaged the whole time, and now the PCs have a potential new contact and patron (provided they don't screw it up).  Hopefully it works out as that patron will probably be important for some of the other stuff they've set in motion, but have not yet encountered...

(For that matter, November was a good month for improvisation and staying totally involved as a GM.  As noted earlier in the month, D&D got so crazy that I was completely engaged for most of that session, and I even had to improvise a dungeon when a teleport went awry.)

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Past Is a Verb

Buried among the inequality of its typically-implied feudal setting, D&D has an implicit (and oft-ignored) transhumanist streak.  High-level D&D magic breaks out of the utilitarian doldrums and goes fully post-singularity, creating the wretched cyberpunk dystopia of your nightmares.  (And that ignores the possibility that your setting is literally post-singularity — all hypertech virtual GUI interfaces and half-mad shattered AIs as gods.  Jeff Rients' World of Cinder operated under this paradigm, as does Anomalous Subsurface Environment, just to give a couple of examples.)

Perhaps more importantly, there exists the very real possibility that the world is haunted by the ghosts of its past realms.

The caveat that needs to be acknowledged: along with Star TrekD&D isn't great at fully teasing out the inevitable consequences of its implied setting.  (Two examples of Star Trek: they discover easy time travel that they rarely use and they introduce warp drive as causing an ecological disaster then completely abandon that subplot.)  I'm not entirely certain it should be — we're just trying to run a game, not fully indulge in masturbatory world-building — but it's a fun little exercise to contemplate how a world would develop if someone can alter reality because they went to grad school, or because they have fire demons in their blood, or whatever.

So D&D is always figuratively about some mythic past as per Tolkien or Chaucer: "In th' olde dayes of the kyng arthour, / Of which that britons speken greet honour, / Al was this land fulfild of fayerye. / The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye, / Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede. / This was the olde opinion, as I rede; / I speke of manye hundred yeres ago. / But now kan no man se none elves mo."  Adventurers interact with their environment in geologic time, encountering the earlier epochs of the realm's history as they delve deeper into the earth.

But there are a couple of significantly more visceral methods of interaction with the past, and they tend to be frequently neglected.

A Boot Stamping on a Human Face — Forever

It varies, of course, but most D&D settings assume some magic, even if it's past its heyday (again as per Chaucer and Tolkien).  Unless you're in the lowest of low magic worlds, chances are good there's at least one vaguely approachable high-level wizard running around.

Although perhaps there are good reasons to avoid the wizards in your setting.
If said wizard is vaguely approachable, then it makes perfect sense that she would be making fat bank casting high-level spells (or scribing high-level scrolls, or manufacturing high-level artifacts) for people who can afford them.  Once you get over the novelty of bossing people around with charm and dominate, or just manufacturing items on demand with fabricate like your own 3D printer, any aristocrat worth their salt is going to want to hang onto their wealth, preferably forever.  So you get into high-octane, death-defying spells like magic jar (researched or imbued in a scroll so that others can use it, of course) and clone.

(While we're on the subject, this is a pretty great magic jar spell analysis.)

At this point, you now have a gentry with the ability to live forever, so long as they can keep pumping money into the system.  It's Courtney Campbell's lich from his tricks supplement, representing "our fear of ancient rulers imposing their unending rule upon us," but describing mortal, magically-augmented people rather than the undead.

But it's basically the same effect: your ancestors bossing you around forever.  Entropy never wipes the slate clean; the King must truly have divine authority if the King rules eternally.  Altered Carbon and Tini Howard's sadly-unpublished Chamber Sounds both delve into this concept — the bastards who get there first gatekeep the rest of the schmoes trying to defy death.

And that's to say nothing of a potential hegemony of wizards capable of doing these things, although that concept is more frequently examined in D&D spaces (potentially including this very blog!) than the idea that the rich use their money to also benefit from said magic.

You can also get into a bunch of interesting permutations, like the magic-users capable of crafting soul jars or clones also forming a protection racket whereby they'll keep these important relics safe for a nominal fee.  (And they'll blackmail you with the knowledge that you won't regenerate after your next death if you don't play ball.)

In Lordran, the Flow of Time Is Distorted

If you don't want to get too heavily into the transhumanist implications of potent D&D spells, then there's a more apparent aspect of D&D that probably merits examination.

Several spells are capable or returning the long-dead or otherwise preserved back to full life.  There's a good example of some manner of greater restoration bringing a new player into the party (after prolonged existence as a statue) in this video:


Watch ForceGrey Season1 Ep5 from dnd on www.twitch.tv

A similar occurrence happens in Dark Souls II:



Between restoring petrified characters, or using resurrection or true resurrection to restore the long-dead, it's entirely possible to have characters from historical epochs intersect with the present day.  And that's without getting into bits of strangeness like long-lived elves, speak with dead, contact other plane, or whatever other magic one can find or devise.

Any historical fact-finding mission or archaeological dig can easily turn into a diplomatic mission when it turns out your primary sources can talk.  Doubly weird because then they ostensibly integrate into society and inform that society — what happens when your ancestor whom you hit with a stone to flesh spell in the Temple of the Medusa tries to rejoin society a couple of generations after his contemporaries lived and died?

That's not, strictly speaking, a common occurrence, but it no doubt happens a non-zero number of times in any given fantasy society.

Now What?

Well, whatever you want, of course.  If you want to take it to its logical conclusion, you have a cadre of elite wizards and super-rich nobles who can live and plot and scheme forever, viewing themselves as gods and the common folk as pawns.  (Or maybe just a cabal of immortal and secretive sorcerer-kings moving behind the scenes.  Or maybe a royal dynasty and their pet wizard.  Whatever floats your boat.)  There are a bunch of ways to play that scenario, with the caveat that the balance of power is likely to be the sort of precarious situation that player characters can inadvertently tip one way or the other — destroy a clone vat or cast a dispel magic in the right spot and suddenly everything is in chaos!

With regard to the other point, it's probably not a terribly common occurrence (unless you have a lot of basilisks in your world or perhaps just one mad resurrectionist), but it is notable that the past sometimes has a more direct voice in the present.  Plus that lets you link in all manner of weird, ancient plots into your games — imagine a cult that leaves a handful of sleeper agents, bound in stone, and when some do-gooder adventuring party restores them to life, they can continue wherever they left off.  That sort of thing.

If nothing else, it's an additional source of clues, characters, and plot hooks, to be sure.

Friday, November 23, 2018

...And Everything Was Going So Well

I usually try to avoid game anecdotes, but this was so ridiculous that I feel the need to share.  The whole thing is up on Obsidian Portal, if you'd prefer.  Otherwise, here's the abridged version:

Four PCs, level 18. They're in the main city in the region, and slavery is legal. They're fighting against slavery, and they come up with a brilliant plan to infiltrate the gladiator pits and liberate the enslaved gladiators. So far, so good.

Knowing that the group was basically going to engage in a series of tense hallway fights this session, I explicitly told them to avoid area-effect spells in tight quarters, because any explosions will flow along the path of least resistance and possibly collapse corridors.  (Roughly as per Jeff Rients, as is good and proper.)

Also, I reminded them that slavery is legal in this city, so if you set off explosions or cause massive death and property damage, you look suspiciously like a terrorist organization. Yeah, you can cast meteor storm and collapse a large section of the gladiator pits, but you'll kill everyone inside and become wanted felons.

During their travels, the PCs have managed to upset the drow. While infiltrating the pits, the drow sent a Retriever drone to capture some of the party members. (It was a coincidence; the PCs just happened to be in the pits at the time.)

This worked to the PCs' advantage — this happened in a gladiator pit guard post, and the PCs worked it into some con that, "The drow are attacking the city and your city needs you! You need to suit up, and we don't know which guards you can trust, so let us sort that out! Also we need to free and arm the gladiators as reinforcements!"

(Of note, the PCs are in disguise so they won't be connected with this technically-illegal act.)

Here they are, before everything goes horribly wrong.
It totally worked. The guards were a little wary, but they fully believed the drow were beginning their onslaught against civilization, and they needed all hands. A couple of other guards who didn't hear this pitch got away and alerted the guard post that something weird was happening. Can't win 'em all.

So the PCs finally start marching up with their small army of soldiers and gladiators, and arrive just in time to meet with one of the high-ranking mob bosses, the guy who runs the pit. Said guy is a vampire and a wizard. Expecting this sort of trouble, the ranger casts silence before the vampire has a chance to speak. Being a cramped, spiral staircase, this turns into a brutal hallway fight between the fighter and the vampire. No magic, just punches. But the fighter is winning, and everything's going according to plan.

Then the wizard gets nervous, retreats out of the silenced staircase, and casts fireball (specifically, a big, nasty, overchanneled fireball) through his familiar, who is currently up near the vampire.

All hell breaks loose.

The fireball takes out every single guard in the staircase, mists the vampire (who ostensibly returns to his coffin to heal), and vaporizes the familiar. Every single slave they've rescued is killed. But the fireball does no damage to the PCs because the wizard can shield up to four people.

Unfortunately, the fireball also takes out the central support pillar for the staircase, collapsing this section of the gladiator pits and pinning the PCs under rubble. They survive, and dig their way out, but things only get worse from there.

They rest, they heal, they prepare to teleport out and try again. The wizard has never been here before, so he's just working from a description of this place. He accidentally teleports to a very similar-looking hallway in a dungeon 400 miles away. It takes the PCs maybe ten minutes to figure out they're not even in the same dungeon anymore, and they expended resources both to get here and to wander around.

Nice dungeon you have there.
It would be a shame if PCs teleported into it.
The wizard uses his last teleport to return to a place above the pits he knows, but by now, the entire City Watch is mobilized. They have to fight their way through some guards, fight another sentry, and use a teleportation circle to flee.

The Shields of the Sorrowfell, trying to fight this stupid construct and escape.
And in the chaos, they leave enough evidence for someone to figure out their true identities, thereby allowing the City Watch to legally and formally call for their arrest.

So remember, kids: don't cast fireball in enclosed spaces.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Dave Arneson Memorial Dungeon

So the last time I posted a shelfie picture on here was... ye gods, nearly five years ago.  Well, it took some doing, but the whole collection is currently on shelves.  I'll no doubt move a couple of things around, and I still need to figure out where I'm putting all the accessories and things, but here's some crappy cell phone pictures of the whole shebang.  Apologies about the mess; I took these pictures shortly after finishing the lion's share of the work.


But where are the D&D books, you ask?  Right here:


I just have to figure out a couple of storage options, clean the table, and we should be good to go.

Oh, lest I forget: there's a shelf of board games, but who cares about those?  (And astute observers will note a disturbingly-high amount of RPG paraphernalia creeping onto the board game shelves.)


Monday, October 15, 2018

OSR Guide For The Perplexed Questionnaire

It's the latest thing in the wake of the G+ exodus, all the cool kids are doing it.

1. One article or blog entry that exemplifies the best of the Old School Renaissance for me:

How to Awesome-Up Your Players

2. My favorite piece of OSR wisdom/advice/snark:

The player characters aren't special in the world, but they are the stars of the show.  Let them do what they want, but show them no unearned mercy.

3. Best OSR module/supplement:

Veins of the Earth, probably.

4. My favorite house rule (by someone else):

As much as I want to say carousing, it might actually be Penny, Nickel, Dime, Quarter, Dollar.

5. How I found out about the OSR:

It was a perfect storm of factors.  Seven-ish years ago, I used to run mostly modern horror (largely Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness), and hadn't really ever tried D&D.  (I'd read the rules, though.)  A friend on Facebook told me the Escapist had some show about porn stars playing D&D.  I don't know what I expected, but I figured that might be amusing once.  It turned out that it was just a group of people playing D&D, and their gaming experience looked a lot like mine.  From there I found D&D With Porn Stars, then Vornheim, and then the cool stuff coming out of Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  Coincidentally, this happened to be at just the same time some friends asked me to run D&D for the first time.

The OSR was the first time I really "got" D&D.

6. My favorite OSR online resource/toy:

I tend to use the fantasy book generator at Abulafia a fair amount.  (It's not explicitly OSR, but Donjon is my most frequent reference when fantasy gaming.)

7. Best place to talk to other OSR gamers:

I tend to lurk more than talk, but you get some neat discussions over in the DCC G+ and the LotFP G+ groups.  (And now they're in one place!)

8. Other places I might be found hanging out talking games:

The Tabletop Dungeon and Unknown Armies Fan Club (both on Facebook) are where you'll find me talking in communities.  (I'm also at Tabletop & LARP RPGs Advice & Inspiration, but it's not as active.  More's the shame.)  If you just want to corner me in a digital back alley and have an old-fashioned cyber-knife fight, I'm on Instagram, MeWe, Tumblr, Twitter, and probably some other platforms I'm forgetting.  I'm PsychicMayhem#4596 over on Discord.

9. My awesome, pithy OSR take nobody appreciates enough:

I don't understand why we're still arguing about whether or not we should like Zak S. when we should all be able to agree RPGPundit is pretty insufferable.

10. My favorite non-OSR RPG:

Unknown Armies.

11. Why I like OSR stuff:

The rules are simple enough to stay out of the way, and the ideas are innovative enough to keep my attention.

12. Two other cool OSR things you should know about that I haven’t named yet:

Last Gasp Generators should be in your Bookmarks.  You should be reading Goblin Punch — if you play a druid in my campaigns, I will invariably force you to read 7 Myths Everyone Believes About Druids.

13. If I could read but one other RPG blog but my own it would be:

That's some Sophie's Choice bullshit, but the correct answer is always Jeff's Gameblog.

14. A game thing I made that I like quite a lot is:

My name generator based on U.S. Census data is the thing I wish I had when I was fourteen.  The Hundred [mass]Acre Deathcrawl is more explicitly OSR retrostupid.

15. I'm currently running/playing:

D&D 5e, LotFP, and Unknown Armies.

16. I don't care whether you use ascending or descending AC because:

I'm not a fucking coward.  Also, I usually keep this printed on an index card:

Click to enlarge!
17. The OSRest picture I could post on short notice:


Friday, September 28, 2018

Into This House We're Born

Hey, over at the Unknown Armies Fan Club, we ran a one shot game on Discord and recorded it!  It's been described as being, "Like Noises Off, but with significantly more cannibalism."  If you still want to listen to it, you'll find it after the jump:

Monday, September 17, 2018

Just an Occupational Hazard of the Speed Business

Don't forget: you have a week left to sign up for Just an Occupational Hazard of the Speed Business, another thrilling play-by-post race at the Unknown Armies Fan Club.  The top three winners get access to fabulous prizes, so get hype!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Just an Occupational Hazard of the Speed Business

So over on the Unknown Armies Fan Club on Facebook, I'm running a play-by-post illegal street race in Los Angeles — think The Fast and the Furious meets Tim Powers.  In addition to bragging rights and in-character glory, the top three winners get fabulous prizes, potentially including a copy of Maria in Three Parts!

If you're interested, come join us:

Just an Occupational Hazard of the Speed Business

If you want to join, you have until September 25, 2018 to submit a character.  Join us!

Friday, August 24, 2018

Tales of a Guerrilla Roleplayer: Koan

Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water.

It sneaks up on him, the way it always does.  Nostalgia.  And it never hits in D.C. or New York.  Hell, it never even hits in Manassas even when he passes by the spot where this all began for him — that’s always where the Gemini used to live, a couple of universes ago.  He still searches for him, from time to time, but knows it’s a fruitless errand — how would you ever hope to find someone devoured whole by the cosmos?

No.  It’s always Fredericksburg.  Fredericksburg is where Aris died, it’s where Rutters happened, it’s where a lot of things happened.

He drifted away from the others, like you do when you reach the mountaintop and have nowhere else to go.  They all drifted apart to various degrees, really.  Sure, they maintain contact, swap stories and Christmas cards, but they’re not close the way they once were.  Accomplices, fighters, lovers.  All gone, all ground into dust the way the universe does.

He likes that.  (Then again, he always liked entropy, liked endings.  Things begin, but they’re meaningless if they don’t end.)  He remembers the old days, but he doesn’t necessarily miss them.  He hated living under the threat of constant war, that this cold war of theirs might suddenly turn hot.

More recently, he hated that they became the Watchers themselves, shepherding reality to their own ends.  He knew it was necessary, but it still didn’t rinse the foul taste out of his mouth.  He’s forgotten more than most mortals ever know, but he still recalls his own quiet resentment.  Some of the others felt similarly, but it had to be done.

So he left.  He heard that the others were undergoing some manner of divine trial, and he heard about that business in Colorado, but he still walked away.  Went to find his own path, finally free for the first time in forever.

He went to Tibet for a little while.  War found him there, this time in the form of the Red Army and their hierarchical sorcerers — having no mundane history has its perks, and espionage came naturally, but he still hated it.  He enjoyed the monastic life, but he didn’t like checking over his shoulder.  He didn’t like how they treated him, like he knew some grand secret.

Gravity pulls downward, and downward for him always means back, back to the origins.  Back to 0,0. 

Back home.

He avoided the supernatural community, instead turning to the quiet life.  Once you’ve seen the strange, Awakened to its possibilities, you can never leave, of course, but you can reduce your footprint, make yourself small.  Make yourself unobtrusive.  Make yourself so strange and so mysterious that nobody comes for you, lest you decide to flex.

Be secret, and if you cannot be secret, be the dragon no one wishes to wake.  War taught him that, at least.

He made friends, friends from old splinters, friends from shards and universes long ago — he knew how to talk to them, what they liked.  He fell into old patterns, returned to an old life in a reality that had forgotten.

But still, nostalgia burns.  His wife knew, of course — he made sure to initiate her into the secret, projected into her consciousness so that she recalled a life she never lived.  Manipulative?  Likely so — but we can’t help who we are.

So, nostalgia burns.  He happened to pass by the Creepy Church a little while ago, but it’s different now, changed as the turning of ages tends to do.  They have more money, became larger, exchanged the sickly, wan, pale yellow light for a bright, white one.  The turning of two universes made it prosper, and it no longer carries the resonance it once did.

But it was in Fredericksburg proper that nostalgia gripped him.  The conditions were perfect — the rain on the windows, riding in the backseat of cars as he did ages upon ages ago.  They could have been traveling to the streets with secret names, they could have had weapons and sigils in the trunk, they could have been hunting vampires or preparing for the Watchers, but these people didn’t know, didn’t interact with the shadowed world.  Even with the secret open, they still kept to their side.

It was the alley that caught his attention.  Memory came flooding back, go down, turn left, knock on the back door, but he looked.  There was no back door, swallowed by the turning of universes, forgotten.  A dim memory.

His companions queried, and he shook his head.  “Must’ve gotten turned around,” he said.  “Let’s go.”

Back into the night.  Back into a mundane life with secret eyes.

After Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Forgetting Shield

This is a relic of the Ulvenbrigad in my Frostbitten & Mutilated game.  A rival adventuring party stole it, but the PCs managed to steal it back, although the cleric died in the process.  Anyway, enjoy!

This large shield of black metal bears a strange, twisting symbol on its face, done in some manner of relief.  Anyone within 60’ viewing the front of the shield must make a save versus Magical Device or be affected by the symbol’s effect.  (During combat, attackers get a +2 to the save because they aren’t concentrating on the shield as much as their opponent’s movements.)

Anyone failing the above save is lulled into a state of unconsciousness that lasts for 1d4 hours.  Upon awakening, he or she has completely forgotten the events of the previous day.  In cases where the subject has experienced severe mental trauma, this amnesia will cure them of any insanity or mental disorders caused by those experiences.

However, the shield also has a massive side effect: it emits microwave radiation in a 60’ radius.  Water within 60’ of the shield begins to boil, and living things are wracked with pain as if they are on fire.  The pain is so intense that everyone within 60’ of the shield, including the wielder, must make a saving throw versus Paralyzation in order to act normally.  Those afflicted will usually either collapse or attempt to move as quickly as possible out of the radius.  Creatures that roll a 1 on the saving throw against Paralyzation take 1 point of damage from blisters and surface burns.

Because both of these effects are permanent, the Forgetting Shield is usually stored in a strange basket of woven metal, and only removed by the strongest warriors.  (This basket acts as a Faraday cage, in case any of your PCs get any brilliant ideas of what to do with that.)

This artifact works roughly the same way in any old school class-and-level RPG variant, but if you're using 5e, I'd check out the Symbol spell to help adjudicate the effects — Con save for pain, Wis save for amnesia/sleep.  I'd set the save DC at 20, although you can set it at 15 if you're a generous soul.  If you see the shield in combat, gain advantage on the Wisdom saving throw.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Rules of Engagement

I've been ruminating on several blog posts for several months, so here's a sliver of one that I should get out of my head sooner or later.

Back around the New Year, a friend of mine was talking about D&D, and how he didn't like the idea of how a fighter with high Armor Class (or low Armor Class, if you're playing with descending AC) is going to use hit points less than everyone else.  It means that our hypothetical fighter is not engaging with every part of the system, and so this GM is inclined to include monsters with better to-hit scores that will strike an inflated AC more frequently.

That almost sounds like a punishment.

If a player makes a character a certain way, that's presumably because they want to play that character with certain expectations as to how things are going to go.  If you play a high-movement, low-AC character, you presumably expect to stay mobile enough that you're never a valid target (or if you become a valid target, you leave).  If you play a wizard, you want to engage with those tasty spells.  And if you make someone with a notable AC, you want to be the immovable object.

Don't punish that choice by devaluing their AC, instead look at everything else on the character sheet.  If you still want to provide a challenge or target hit points or whatever, they probably still have several weaknesses that enemies can exploit.  Your hypothetical walking shield wall is probably still vulnerable to spells, being neither the most mobile nor the most strongly-willed.  And that's without getting into other consequences such as threatening their equipment, allies, family members, fellow party members, and the like.

Besides, there's no need to punish players for their good decisions when they're always likely to cause blowback with their bad decisions.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

State of the Madicon 2018: Three Months' Dead

The state of the Madicon is strong.

It's been three months, but I'm just now getting this on the blog.  Nicole and I made the annual pilgrimage to Harrisonburg, VA for Madicon 27 from March 9 to March 11, 2018. (Interested parties can read about Madicon 22, Madicon 24, Madicon 25, and Madicon 26.)  Since we're so far removed, this will likely be short and sweet.

Friday night saw hang outs and light board gaming (we tried the Mage Knight Board Game, which was probably a little more complicated than we ought to have tried to tackle at the time, but was still entertaining), but the meat of my con memories come from Saturday.

A last-minute substitution on Friday led to me running an Unknown Armies one shot rather than my usual Lamentations of the Flame Princess nonsense.  (Fortunately, I was aware of the eventuality, so I had both prepped.)  Tying in with my usual campaign, the players were high school students whose friend went missing, apparently into a mysterious cave that wasn't there just the other day.  Examination of said cave led to an Otherspace depicting a strange Soviet Los Angeles, replete with weirdos, velociraptors, and morlocks.  I think people had fun, but it also went in an unexpected direction: to find their friend and escape, the teenagers ended up cutting a deal with some mystics on the other side, who returned to our side of the gate.

The setup.  Click to enlarge.
The Objective board.  Click to enlarge.
The character sheets.  Click to enlarge.
That evening saw a continuation of Arashi's long-running 7th Sea game, which was just intense as usual.  There were costumes, there was wine, there were tears, there was awkwardness, it was a hell of time.  (And we've been dealing with the emotional fallout for three months now.  Compounded, of course, by the fact we haven't been able to play as often.)  Not as many pictures as previous Madicons, but I believe there are more unflattering pictures lurking on the internet somewhere.

Sunday we played Nevermore, which is pretty fast once you get the hang of it, and then we headed home.

Sadly, this will likely be our last regular Madicon, as the group with whom we travel probably isn't going in quite the same arrangement.  But we will no doubt set foot in that glorious land again.  If only for Glen's Fair Price.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Review: Frostbitten & Mutilated

I haven't posted in a while or done a review in even longer, but here we are.

Despite unabashedly enjoying Zak S.'s work, I'll freely admit: I didn't love this book.  Not at first, anyway.

It took a bit to infect me and implant its wriggling parasites under my skin.  So this review is as much a description of that process as it is an actual review of the book.

First things first: the core stuff.  Size A4, 144 pages.  Written and illustrated by Zak Smith, published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  There's little wasted space: it starts with a short introduction to both the book and the setting, and then launches into the bestiary, which is about 44% of the book and forms most of the world-building.  (If you just want cool monsters to throw into a winter-themed hexcrawl like the Kraal, which I think is partially this book's spiritual ancestor, it's here.)  The next 15% of the book is the "plot," such as it is: featuring a map, a couple of dungeon maps, and a timeline of events, this is the structure your PCs will roam if you're using the book as written.  (If you want a ready-to-go sandbox campaign, that's where you'll find it.)  The next 14% of the book is new rules: new classes (Amazon and Witch, both set up in the random advancement system style that so many OSR people like to use), new spells (for Witches or maybe Magic-Users), new substances (a magical metal and two chemicals), and new survival rules for use with the Bushcraft skill (because you're traveling across inhospitable territory).  The rest of the book is rounded out with an essay on running sandbox games and then a host of random tables to assist that process.

All this stuff is presented in a straightforward and concise manner, and once you get your bearings, the book is very spatially oriented, so you can find stuff without consulting the Table of Contents or the Index.  Even if I don't remember something offhand, I can flip to it in a couple of seconds, because it's exactly where it's supposed to be.

Basically, he took his own advice (as he usually does), and instead of giving us some boring historical litany like some Tolkien reject, you just get stuff like, "Ovv was the ruler of the forgotten civilization that built the Dim Fortress in aeons so remote even the sister-witches recall it only as you remember the texture of the first carpet you crawled. His kingdom was awful, and he was a despot—the kind of man who inspired gods to invent death by old age. But he got in under the wire. All his subjects and enemies long dead, his stronghold entombed, he sits still atop the Darkthrone, ten feet tall, clutching his sword, waiting for someone to be a bastard to."

That's all we get about the king, and that's all we need.  He's a jerk.  His stats bear this out.

But as noted, I didn't love it at first.  (Don't get me wrong: I still liked it, but would have called it the weakest of his books.)  Despite having some great ideas and solid world-building, this initially fell flat for two reasons:

1) Of all of his books, it feels the most like his blog.  While there are some great products that are basically just gussied-up blog posts — Veins of the Earth comes to mind, although it's so jam-packed with extra stuff that you don't notice you already read half of it — this one basically just felt like throwing down Euros to re-read posts I'd previously read for free, only with fewer typos and prettier art.  For that matter, a small portion of the material here previously appeared in another form in the Vornheim book.

2) It also feels like a setting I might create.  Vornheim feels 50% like some setting I'd create: a drunken orgy of ideas from Borges and Leiber and Peake, formed into a sprawling, decadent pulp city.  Twisted spires and political masterminds are totally my jam, but I'd probably never invent brilliant bits of color like homunculus assassins that hide in human bodies, or the fact that the world was created by medusae using the lithified remains of demons.  Maze of the Blue Medusa and Red & Pleasant Land are 100% things I'd never create — tone-wise, they fit right in, but a baroque dungeon of ancient, sad ladies and a vampire Wonderland are probably outside my wheelhouse, and that's totally rad.  On the other hand, a mythic Scandinavia of eternal snows where beasts and women run free, unfettered by the chains of Man, sounds like an idea I could have, and if I did have it, it would probably look similar: all idiosyncratic beasts and weird magic and berserkers like Maenads.

The first thing that changed my mind about the whole thing was Rushputin's comment that F&M has an excellent layout and is very usable (as described above).  I hadn't noticed at first because that's just assumed.  LotFP books in general and Zak S. books in particular are going to be very usable at the table and easy to find what you need.  That's just assumed at this point.

The second thing was that a friend of mine requested I run it, so I had to start working with the text to prepare the module.  And that's usually a chore, but this was super-easy.  I don't have a full hexcrawl of the entire map prepared yet, but I have some adventures around Rottingkroner prepared, and then some other stuff out in the wilds.  Random encounters can handle the rest until I have to stock hexes.

So, you ultimately get a highly-usable sandbox setting full of black metal Scandinavian goodness.  It deviates from the facts of Norse myth, instead drawing its inspiration from the feel of Norse myth, as well as fairy tales and pop culture.  And plus there are marauding Amazons that might try to kill or recruit you for intruding upon their lands.  It's a solid book, although it seems more restrained than his other work.  On the other hand, perhaps that makes it more accessible to readers from more traditional fantasy RPG backgrounds.  If you're looking for an Arctic/winter-themed sandbox setting, or you want to put some mythic flavor in your games, this is a solid pick.

(As for the weird things I want to inject directly into my veins, there are a couple of gems in here.  Of course, I love the bleak setting, the mythic feel of the animals, and the weird spells, but special mention goes to the owls.  Owls are weird in the Devoured Land, possibly in a way that refers back to Ken Hite's "The Owls' Service" from The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time.  If you are familiar with how snakes work in Vornheim, owls are anti-snakes.  Definitely worth a look.)

One last thing: We still haven't started the campaign.  We were supposed to start Friday, but one of our players had to cancel at the last minute.  Since I was ready to go, though, I did run a one shot set in the Devoured Land.  It was beyond stupid, but we had so much fun that it led me to write this post in the first place.  As with so many things, RPGs are meant to be played, and are probably only best measured in light of that activity.  After all, using the Devoured Land at the table is where Frostbitten & Mutilated truly shines.

I started the first party in square H7 on the Devoured Land map (pages 82-83).  Having taken the road from Rottingkroner and camped for the night, they set out first thing in the morning, traveling upriver along the River Slith.  A light snow is falling.  A couple of hours upriver, I roll the first random encounter, a lost traveler.  I consult one of my own random charts and determine she is a lost noblewoman.  That suggests her backstory: she was clearly traveling these lands to seek the Amazons in the hopes they could perform an embryoctony, and she was separated from the adventurers who escorted her out here.  She seems frightened and starved, and very wary of this party of three strange men before her.  They're not heading back to Rottingkroner as that would blow their profit margin, but she's welcome to travel with them as they explore this land.  Perhaps they can help her find her companions?  Another two hours, another random encounter, and they find a twisted tree, big enough to provide shelter.  Since they have another mouth to feed, the halfling decides to hunt; he finds nothing, but that takes up the rest of the day, so they make camp.  As the party begins to bed down and take watches, I roll another encounter and get fucking Blasphemer and his rat swarm.  I flip to his page, read, "Blasphemer may utter an Unholy Word (as the spell) once per week. So be careful out there," and then flip to the Holy Word spell and read that.  There is a short pause as I re-read it several times to ensure I'm reading it correctly.  It... instantly slays characters with fewer than 4 HD?  Just like that?  Based on my read of the spell, I rule it doesn't affect the wizard, but with everyone else dead the rat swarm finishes him off.  Total Party Kill #1.

Since that was very short, and I have more pregens, I give them a second chance.  The second party also starts in square H7, but this party of pregens has the Summon spell.  One player convinces the wizard she should cast it the night before they head into the Devoured Land, so that if she binds the demon long-term, they have a servant.  She agrees.  She rolls — the demon is more powerful than expected, and she blows the binding roll.  It possesses her.  The PCs go to bed.  She pretends to sleep.  On her watch, she massacres the rest of the party, then goes off into the wastes to do whatever permanently-incarnated demons do.  They never even leave the road.  Total Party Kill #2.

I've been laughing about this all weekend.  On the one hand, my players are aware there might be a small fortune in noblewoman's jewelry only a few miles upriver from the road in the Devoured Land; on the other hand, there's now a demon-possessed wizard somewhere out there.

A++, would run again.

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