Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Christmas Specials

Christmas Scenarios are somewhat of a tradition in the world of Legend. If only because Dave Morris’ group plays a Christmas special every year and the scenario ends up on his blog as a Christmas gift to well behaved children everywhere. So, in an attempt to emulate this I wanted to do something similar for my Dragon Warriors players for Christmas 2020. However, instead of a one off special I was looking to integrate it into our long running campaign if possible. 

However, what makes a Christmas scenario? I sat down with my notebook and the internet and a large mug of mulled wine to think it over. Setting a game in Legend is useful in this respect. Being a close but no cigar version of our own late dark/early Middle Ages there is already analogue Christianity in the form of the True Faith so it stands to reason there would be an analogue Christmas feast. Plus we have a load of scenarios set around that time on the Fabled Lands blog to draw from.

Therefore, there is a rich vein of winter feast related lore to mine both from Christian and pagan traditions IRL, and their Legend equivalents. So make it Christmassy but also make it good. And not too Christmassy, this is Legend so let’s not let anyone have any actual fun (ha.) Seriously though Legend games require a deft balance between the mundane and the magical, this a setting of grim myth, folklore and horror grounded in a version of historical reality. Atmosphere is key. Christmas here should feel like a magical time but not a fantastic one. Let’s leave that sort of thing to our RPG cousins playing in high fantasy settings like Eberron. The atmosphere we’re after is O Magnum Mysterium or Coventry Carol, an eerie time of year rather than a a joyful one. It’s the Bleak Midwinter not Decking the Halls.

What approach then to keep it seasonal but not turn it into Asda in early November,  with Cliff Richard on the store radio and mince pies on the shelves despite the fact that it’s definitely still autumn outside? We’re not doing a hostage rescue on Santa, for instance. There is always the Die Hard route of just setting it at Christmas time. John McLean taking on euro terrorists in a skyscraper isn’t the most festive pitch for a movie, except that it’s set at an office Christmas Party (leading many to state that Christmas doest start until Hans Grüber falls from the Nakatomi Plaza…) Dave Morris own Silent Night scenario (or mini campaign) goes down this route, essentially being a ghost story with the Christmas Feast as the backdrop. 

Whilst grasping at straws a minor epiphany occurred to me. My Dragon Warriors games are often at their heart a clash of traditions as the old pagan world slowly fades in the face of the new Faith. There are many Christmas traditions that have an obvious source and others where we pay no mind to their origins. For instance, if I were to do a straw poll of my friends and family, few of them would be able to tell me why people started placing a tree in their house at this time of year.

Plus I had watched the Hogfather on TV (it was rather good) and it had me in mind of repurposed traditions. The Old Gods doing new jobs, much like the faeries of Legend. 

The characters in my DW games are already marginalised people at the edges of feudal society. They’re lordless wanderers, outcasts and itinerant mercenary types. Getting involved in forgotten traditions, that are important but no one else knows or cares about, is right up their street. 

So, why does an old man climb the  Dritenwood Tor every Christmas Eve and light a warding fire at the summit? It’s to keep the Cold Lady out of this reality, of course, but what happens if he dies? Who lights the fire, and if no one does would the Cold Lady really appear? More on that next time I feel. 

Sunday, 10 October 2021

The Hour Game


It is no goblin, no dragon, no black Ssú that is my greatest enemy in all of role playing games. It’s time. Time is against me. Work, life, family, social commitments all require time. Multiply this by the number of persons required to form the average gaming group and suddenly we hit time’s evil hench-thing, scheduling. Getting all the players together in the same room or online at the same time can be the greatest challenge facing any would be adventurer. Usually on my games it’s me that is the problem. At the moment this is definitely the case. Too much non-gaming stuff is intruding into my gaming time. 

However this weekend we found if not a solution, then a compromise. The Hour Game. Number one weapon against Time itself. It might seem, when the average online session is probably three hours, that an hour isn’t enough time to play a meaningful episode of any game but bear with me.

Firstly our campaign is already established. We’ve been playing Dragon Warriors Yamato for a number of months now and the PCs know what they’re about. 

Secondly we usually play for two hours with a tea break at the halfway point. When I say two hours, probably the first quarter hour is taken up with general chatting and catching up. After all we might be an online group but we’ve been together for in excess of five years and while I may never have physically met half the players we’re all friends. So in order to remain focussed during the actual hour of gaming some of the guys came on a bit early to chat, after all we haven’t seen each other for five weeks prior to this session. 

Once we reached the start of the hour, I gave a quick recap and then we cracked on. 

Staying focussed on the matter at hand with as little digression as possible we were able to gain a functional session in a time when something longer wouldn’t have been possible given my current time constraints. A victory then. The experiment continues next week... after all two of the PCs have now pledged allegiance to opposing sides in the mountain-storm spirit war

Sunday, 12 September 2021

A Tale of Reckoning

 They dragged the treacherous Sir Mortimer out into the chill of the desert morning. He had dogged their footsteps since Albion, aiding their enemies in Ferromaine and siding with the Knights of St Swithun to oppose them in the Holy Land. Aethelbald and Sir Raymond held him, and Sir Friewich struck off his head with the barrow blade. There would be no bargain.”

This was one of the high points of my five year long Dragon Warriors campaign, where the PCs were faced with a fairly significant choice. For this campaign began as a simple one shot where I was going to run DW for some G+ folks who I didn’t really know. However my inability to be concise and neatly tie up plot threads meant that the game just dragged on and was all the better for it. The simple tale of a journey to petition the bishop for funds for a friend’s church roof quickly spiralled (downward?) into a tale of relic theft, priest murder and faerie weirdness. So, standard Legend stuff then. 

Sir Mortimer began as an entry on a random table of knights I created for the game. He was a sell sword with a questioning speech tick and a business like attitude that meant he didn’t believe anything was personal. Even betraying the PCs location to their enemies and assisting with the kidnap of their friend’s betrothed and shipping her halfway across the world. It’s safe to say that the PCs took a different view.

Having followed the eponymous hostage to Ferromaine they were able to rescue her from her father’s agents but allowed Sir Mortimer to slip through the net. He later resurfaced in Outremer as the PCs were attempting a dangerous trip behind the battle lines of the Crusdades in Zenhir to carry out a potentially very profitable spice trade. Now allied with the Knights of St Swithun, a crusading order of zealous heretic burners that had first crossed paths with our protagonists in session one, he sought to beat them to the Zenhiri saffron barons and establish an exclusive trade route.

Indeed he did so and the PCs only caught up with him after his armed pilgrimage was ambushed by fanatical Zenhiri tribesmen. Much like Xenophon camped by the ruins of Nineveh, the Knights of St Swithun fled into a ruined city in the desert. Here, a tense three-way game of cat and mouse developed as tribesmen, knights and PCs all hunted each other in the demon haunted remnants of this once great city. 

The final confrontation with Sir Mortimer found him wounded and alone, offering not battle but a bargain. He had hidden the saffron but offered to share it with the characters if they gave their word to see him safely back to a neutral port...

This put the players in a tricky situation. They had put considerable effort and time (both in game and out) into this expedition. The silver they had been staked to buy the saffron was lost to misadventures in Ibrahim, so their intention had been to steal the spice from Sir Mortimer and the Knights. However, now the only way to profit was to provide succour to their enemy and form a temporary alliance for the sake of financial gain. 

Instead they chose revenge. 

Monday, 6 September 2021

The Inescapable Green-ness of the Other Grass

Unrealistic RPG obsessions: I have these, i.e.  I would love to run a long campaign of.... (insert game I barely understand)  but I don’t have the time or inclination to learn what must be learned (Glorantha, I am looking at you). I’m currently on gaming hiatus for various reasons and my ASE and Dragon Warriors Yamato campaigns are temporarily suspended. The other group I play in is also halfway-ish through an Alien RPG scenario run by my good friend Alex although that is also on ice until I can return to it. However, in recent times managed to tick off a few games from my RPG bucket list. So on reflection maybe these obsessions aren’t so unrealistic.

I posted ages ago that I wanted to run WFRP, Talislanta and GURPS but probably never would. I have, in fact, run short campaigns of both WFRP 1e and Talislanta 4e since then; and played in a WFRP game as a player exploring Castle Drachenfels and getting beaten up by the furniture. GURPS however, remains on the unlikely-to-play pile for the next foreseeable lifetime. Probably a good thing. I dislike rules heavy systems these days.

WFRP is a lot of fun and I thoroughly enjoyed GMing it.  Critical tables and careers doing the heavy lifting in conveying the setting here. I find it a little hard to prepare for though because IMO it requires a careful hand to keep the aesthetic straight without it becoming too predictable. There’s probably some Chaos cult at the root of these problems, whatever they are, and if there isn’t what are we doing playing WFRP instead of something else? That sort of thing. 

Talislanta was also fun in a free wheeling Sword and Sorcery type of way. The rules worked out different in play to how I imagined. Magic in particular was less effective than I thought it would be. Also the combat specialist character was disproportionately tough and effective  compared to his more generalist associates (we had an Ur Renegade, a Cymrillian Swordsmage and a Yitek Tomb Robber as a collection of archetypes.) It was however a good time as the PCs became embroiled as amateur agents of the Cymrillian secret service, carrying out operations abroad in Sindar. I’d revisit it for definite. 

I did think Dragon Warriors set in Yamato would never come to pass either but we’re about ten sessions into that with no sign of slowing down. It’s probably a more magical version than my usual depiction of Legend but hopefully not by too much. This is something that first captured my imagination when I first read about the possibility in Book 6 back in the eighties, so it’s nice to finally get to it nearly forty years later. 

I have plans to run Marvel Superheroes for the Saturday group, once we’re done with Alien and it’s my turn to GM once more. D6 Star Wars needs to feature at some point also but I think I can manage that once I return to some vestige of normal gaming. 

That leaves the White Whales: Tékumel (probably using Empire of the Petal Throne,) Runequest and The One Ring. They probably need their own post for discussion. Largely because they’re campaign games or I think they would work best in that format. I’m not really a one shot sort of GM either. Although I can manage it at a push, I prefer a longer form game. One where the setting and characters have time to grow. Those are the games that fascinate me the most. 

Then there’s my own Grim North setting which I continue to beaver away on now and again despite it not getting any play...

Essentially this is about time management. I could play anything really, I just need the time to prep and run it. At the moment (always?) that means dropping something else to find space in my schedule. Having too many cool games to run and play is one of those good problems anyway.

Monday, 30 August 2021

The Anomalous Subsurface Environment

I have run this and it’s good. The Anomalous Subsurface Environment is a science fantasy megdungeon placed in a post apocalyptic world of crazy wizards, dinosaurs, ancient technology and magic. It’s a quintessential old school renaissance American D&D product. It borrows heavily from the aesthetic of Thundarr the Barbarian. Or so I’m told. I’m British and we never had Thundarr over here but chat with American OSRist and they’ll rave about it. Or it’s potential.  I don’t know many folks that still heavily rate stuff that was on TV when they were children. 

So ASE 1 is setting, gatehouse level and level 1. ASE 2-3 is, surprising no one, levels 2 and 3 of the dungeon. This is unfortunately where the science fantasy weirdness ends for now. My own players are on level 3 currently. While I have tried to piece together a level 4 of my own crafting for them to explore, it transpires that I suck at and borderline hate mega dungeon design. So that probably won’t be happening. I consider this a shame because if any more ASE was published I would lap it up and run it to death, like it was one of the many henchfolk who have met their demise in the dungeon and been unceremoniously thrown from a cliff, dubbed Fall-hala by the PCs. (Does waving a lighter around while you dispose of someone’s body in a local beauty spot constitute a ceremony? If so, unceremoniously is unfair)

Mega dungeon play in the ASE and of itself has a lot to recommend it. It’s episodic. We finish most sessions in town so if there’s a rotating cast of PCs then it doesn’t matter.  There are factions. The PCs can engage in all sorts of diplomacy or just exterminate them and take their stuff if they prefer. The trap and puzzle rooms have been a massive source of planning and scheming between sessions, in some cases for weeks on end. One particular room involved a large group of PCs and their small army of henchfolk barricading dungeon corridors and excavating a wall while fighting of legions of random encounters to get at an elusive pile of silver pieces. Good times. 

Henchfolk have played a pivotal role in the campaign for their valuable skills as hit point soaks for actual PCs. And also one player is now playing one of her former henchfolk after her first PC was eviscerated by a troglodyte matriarch with a double barrelled shotgun. There has been several dramatic henchfolk massacres, notably while fighting cornstalk mean on the mountain outside the dungeon; and battling the necromantic midgets, and their undead allies, in their tiny throne room.

This is not a dungeon of drow and orcs but of screeching eyeless freaks and cannibal morlocks. There are murderous clowns and towering great mushrooms. Strange oracles and synthetic life forms. There is a healthy dose of the weird. A PC has been turned green, one has had their gender altered multiple times and there is a whole load of stuff included because the designer thought it was cool. Flying head from Zardoz (I have his minions manifest as different aspects of Sean Connery) a weird robot Sasquatch thing (I don’t know what it is but there’s a mini of it,) Lion men from Thundarr and more crazy wizards than can easily be counted. This gonzo but done well. Bonus fact, PCs fear clowns. I don’t know whether it’s IT or the one out of poltergeist but middle aged nerds have absorbed enough negative clown media to be actively scared of them, when all they want you to do is attend the Anomalous Subsurface Circus and have a good time....

Preparation required to run this is limited. Just reading the module really. I did spend some time working on a party that the PCs were invited to which was well worth it. They hired a carriage, brought in a tailor to make their outfits, Stacy the halfling had her hair done. It was cool. However the low prep aspect is why I started running this. During the height of the pandemic with a lot of time on my hands I was able to maintain four games a week including two that I was running out of my own head. Having an already sketched out mega dungeon was a massive boon for Thursday nights as it required me to do very little other than show up on time with my dice, fully clothed and have my internet on.

I like it a lot and I wish Patrick Wetmore would write more of it.

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Play the World

This is a tough one and I don’t have a coherent answer straight in my head yet but I shall post my thoughts regardless.

The war cry of The Freekreigsspiel Revolution is “Play Worlds, not Rules.” While I may never (never say never, I did after all run a short campaign in Talislanta recently) play in an FKR style that statement resonates with me. For while I may have/still run Dragon Warriors it is the world of Legend that lives large in my mind not any undue attachment to armour bypass rolls or magical defence per se. (Although if we are going to have lots of magic I am a fan of magical attack/defence, the spells of more powerful wizards should be harder to resist.)  I may have mentioned it before, a lot, but rules as written Dragon Warriors, although a perfectly serviceable rule set, is far from a perfect fit for Legend. When we examine Legend we see a world not unlike our own Middle Ages except the beliefs of folklore are real, not necessarily common but definitely real. There are trolls in the fens but you probably won’t find one bouncing on the door of your local tavern. At least not if I’m running the game (partly because you probably can’t afford to drink in a tavern.) So this would suggest to me that we should be looking at a fairly low magic rule set to accommodate all that medieval fake realism, creepy atmosphere and horror. Instead I believe the DW rules as written would work much better for a sword and sorcery world. Out of seven original Professions, at least four exhibit open magic use and the assassin’s meditative techniques are a grey area. In my own DW campaigns I have prohibited the majority of these, allowing players to portray knights, barbarians, assassins, and the players book professions. I did weaken my resolve on mystics but the jury remains out on the effects of this. By excluding magic using player characters we retained the feel of Legend more accurately but the unused portions of the book sit glancing askance at me, the players joking that “if only we were allowed to play warlocks, none of this would have happened...”

So while we can make it work what I’m saying is I would like a rule set to play Legend as it exists in the setting lore of Book 6 or in the original adventures from the back of the books (now collected as Sleeping Gods.) Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson play a house ruled version of GURPS and currently Dave toils away on Jewelspider RPG which we all hope is going to be the definitive Legend rule set (and from I’ve seen looks decent, although the magic rules remain unreleased.) 

However, really after all this time can anyone’s vision of Legend (even that of Mr Morris) match the version of it that has lived in my head since I first read the King Under the Forest when I was eight years old? That setting has percolated away in my mind, for a long time free of the influence of the need to play role playing games, that I don’t think anyone else’s conception of it will line up exactly with my own. So whenever I gaze upon a dark Cumbrian forest, the elves that lurk there in my imagination are the capricious faeries of Legend; or the moors of my North Yorkshire homeland are haunted by the trolls of DW book one, not those of the Mentzer Expert set. That I think is the beauty of role playing games though, we all approach the same material in different ways see those worlds through the lens of our own experience, creating infinite fantastic variations on a theme. 

As I lurch and weave my way randomly towards a conclusion I am beginning to accept that if I want to play Legend, rather than Dragon Warriors or house ruled GURPS or hacked Runequest I’m going to have to come up with something myself. Something simple that allows the setting to shine, in all its bloody, low key downbeat glory. That sucks because I’m not a game mechanics guy. I hate rules. 

Or as the FKR would suggest I should free myself from the tyranny of rules and just play the world, using rulings to adjudicate conflict and occasionally rolling the dice to resolve that which cannot be settled by discussion. Based on an old method of resolving military war games amongst Prussian officers it was deemed that whatever system of rules was used it was an artificial construct which could therefore be manipulated and the outcome skewed from actual reality. In this school of thought only the judgement of an experienced referee could effectively simulate the outcome of actual warfare. The early days of role playing games were like this in the pre-OD&D era. While I’m not fetishising this as Ur-role playing or a One True Way, this is particularly attractive to me because I’m too lazy to write even a simple rule set for my Legend games. Or like a Judge Dredd one shot or something for a 40K Inquisitor game that is multiple orders of simplicity from Dark Heresy. I’m not sure it’s everyone’s cup of tea though. 

Thursday, 19 August 2021

Beyond the Wall

 Beyond the wall is good. It’s aims are to create a game that emulates the fantasy of Ursula LeGuin or Lloyd Alexander. So Earthsea and Prydain. Both good choices for inspiration in my humble opinion. While at heart it’s a B/X clone it has a number of additional things going for it that I really like. 

Beyond the Wall is designed to be brought to the table with zero prep. I’ve run it twice with this exact amount of prior work and it’s been great at the table. 

Character Generation is achieved by means of playbooks and involves collaboration between players and GM to build the PCs home village. Basically each playbook is a set of random tables that tells you something about your character and allows you to add a location or NPC to the village map. It’s cool. It immediately ties the PCs to one another through pieces of shared history and to the setting because it’s their home and they are helping create it. You get packs like Young Hunstman or Witch’s Aprentice or Assistant Beast Keeper. 

Meanwhile the GM gets a scenario pack, also a series of tables. This allows the GM to tie into the players ideas by populating tables with the NPCs and locations they create and rolling for a series of events that take place in the build up to the scenario as well as the contents of the scenario itself. The scenario pack also gives you a few useful bits like monster stats and suggestions for how to use them and also a big list of thematic names (which is always handy.) Included in the main book are a few scenario packs such as The Angered Fae or The Witch’s Mistake. 

In a series of rolls and about an hour you should have characters ready and a scenario prepped and a collaborative world built. Well, it’s a village but it’s pretty much the world of the PCs because they are young heroes starting out on an adventuring career.

I’ve run Beyond the Wall twice, intending to use it in the manner it suggests. So we sat down over a Google meet session and did characters and a scenario pack. It took two sessions of two hours to resolve the mystery of the Angered Fae but we also created the PCs and their village and I did no work outside of the sessions. So a success for Beyond the Wall. 

The second time I ran it, our scheduled session of Alien wasn’t ready for the table for IRL reasons so I offered to run BtW at short notice. Again I turned out a scenario pack, the Opened Barrow, and we used the same characters from the prior game, which was by now months in the past. I did add a new player and it was simple to get them to roll on their tables alone to generate stuff for their character and the village with one minor alteration (PCs get a bonus from one of the other players’ seated next to them at the table playbook so we determined this randomly instead.) Again I did no prep. I already had a lot of stuff to tie into from the previous game. One PCs ambiguous romantic involvement with another, now absent, PC’s betrothed. The absent PC now having gone missing in game plus the stuff from the scenario pack and I had loads to work with. Another couple of sessions worth it turned out. So for filling in at the last minute I was very happy with it. 

I’d like to run a full campaign of this at some point as there are campaign tools in the “Further Afield” supplement that also look very handy indeed.