Wednesday, 13 December 2017

How the (Grim) North Was Run

I have alluded in my previous posts about Carcosa and sort of thinking about Runequest, that I do not prep very much to run games. This is true. I’m not anti prep, I think having something ready to go for each session is valuable, no matter how good you are at improvising your sessions on the fly. The danger of too improvisational an approach being that you come to rely on the same twists and tricks to keep things moving. This can lead to games getting a bit samey from session to session. Yet the ability to improvise is essential. As Dave Morris commented to me on his blog ”no scenario should survive contact with the players.” So I prep but I expect to improvise.

When I prep stuff it’s either a short list of notes or some sort of tool. A table is a good example, or a quick map. Brief notes about an NPC or location, or how the various factions within the setting have progressed their plans. 

So in my Grim North game, how did this manifest? I’m glad I pretended that you asked...

The Grim North ran as a mostly weekly game over google hangouts with a rotating cast of players. It was designed to be a drop in when you can sort of game and I always stated I would run it if two or more players were available. Sometimes it ran twice a week if I thought there were too many people for one session but this maybe happened once or twice over the course of a year.

The central conceit of the game was that the PCs were based out of the House of Mercenaries, Sellspears and Blades for Hire in the gigantic fantasy city-state of Nox Aeterna. The proprietor of the House would offer a range of jobs to the PCs based on what paid work was available. Also there were weekly rumours to pursue and massive fantasy city (and wilderness beyond that) to  explore if they so chose. The idea was this would present a sandbox in which short, episodic adventures could take place and if a player missed a session, it wouldn’t matter too much. There was no overarching metaplot (gods forbid.)

This was my campaign pitch,  

The Grim North awaits. It is the Age of Samhain: The countless black spires of Nox Aeterna, City of Eternal Night, rest upon the ruins of a thousand forgotten civilisations. Insane patricians, bizarre cults and shadowy, eldritch forces all vie for power. Outside the walls, barbaric tribes war constantly with each other and the unforgiving winter. In dark, cobwebbed forests and haunted ruins, stalk malign beasts who want you dead and hordes of weird goblins steeped in slaughter and madness. This is old school D&D, where great dangers yield great rewards and a glorious death; or a ignominious demise, penniless, bleeding out on the snow.

I’m not sure I’m as happy with it now as I was at the time. Certainly there are no goblins in the Grim North these days but that is one of those things that in games grow through play.

So from the GMs side, at first, I leaned heavily on Vornheim to run the city but as I slowly added more of my own tables and quirks to the place it began to take on a life of its own. The influences I was trying to draw on were Lankhmar, Megacity One, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the film Dark City but generally it often felt as though I was channeling Ankh Morpork (unsurprisingly I 
suppose, it does parody many of the same influences.) In naming some of the districts I strived to give each a distinct flavour, done with the hackneyed device of assigning regional quirks to them. Although there was no Thieves Guild, rival crews owned turf in various districts and were randomly generated off a table I devised to name them. They’re more like the gangs from the Warriors than anything else.

The ruling class of Patricians were supposedly all insane through inbreeding and being descended from ancient families whose origins pre date the modern city. As a result the table of Patricians included a list of random “insanities” although many of these simply resulted in weird or eccentric behaviour. I added tables for omens, weather (it’s snowing... moderately) and weird occurrences. There are random NPC Mercenaries from the House to act as hirelings and a table to generate cults (just their names really but it worked fine.) There is also a ridiculously over arcane table to generate Rekkar barbarian names and a better one to generate some tribe names for them to belong to.

That’s sort of it really. Come up with a couple of rumours and jobs (attach these to various locations within the city,)  make a few random rolls before the session and set the PCs loose to do what they want. 

Oh and improvise wildly. That’s important.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Why I Will Probably Never Play Runequest, and some rambling

I’ve come to two conclusions recently:

I like rules light and I’m low prep. Super low prep. Mostly none. 

I think I’m too lazy for crunchy games (caveat, for a given value of crunch, some GURPs players might think my bar for such things is set pretty low) Or maybe I don’t have enough time. However the same pattern tends to emerge. I get the bug for Runequest (largely from listening to the Grognard Files podcast, which is excellent) or WHFRP, I read about it, begin to fear the sheer weight of rules and flee back to the comforting arms of Swords & Wizardry or Dragon Warriors. Not that I don’t feel these systems have their problems, I can however run either without any reference to the books in terms of rules. Now, I accept that these are the games that I am most familiar with and if I were to bite the bullet and actually run some Stormbringer 1st edition (like I secretly want to) then I might get to a point where it is as easy for me to handle as my beloved S&W: White Box. If.

The weight of the new is a terrible thing however. Runequest comes complete with the behemoth Glorantha attached. A huge draw to the game, not many fantasy settings are as widely realised nor carry such depth. That being a double edged sword however. I know next to nothing about it. I don’t even know if I know enough to know how much I don’t know. Before I descend into Casanova Frankenstein territory, that is a bit of a stumbling block that I’m sure is not only relevant to me. So when you add unfamiliar rules and an unfamiliar setting we get to the demon of DMing: Prep.

If I have to do more to prep for a session than stare out of the window for five minutes, that is too much. I’m busy. I have an irregular schedule. Work strange hours. I juggle lots of things socially. So does everyone else. I’m not whinging about these things. They are just facts. My gaming time, no matter how much I enjoy it, is limited (currently non existent.) So Glorantha or Tekumel or Talislanta , as much as I would love to learn about them, are beyond my means in terms of time. I need a setting that just sits perfectly in my imagination space, I believe other people call this their brain. So Legend, the Dragon Warriors setting, is a good example of this for me. It draws heavily on the same influences that I had as a child. I loved Robin of Sherwood on ITV and so did Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson, the creators of the game. Also as I first picked it up as a snot nosed minor and it has lived in my imagination for a long time. I mean, I used to be able to look out of my bedroom window in North Yorkshire and see bleak moors and dark, cobwebbed forests. It’s not a great mental leap to fill those forests with mystery or be scared of what might be lurking in the mists on those moors..

The Grim North (see practically every other post on this blog) is a similar situation for me. As a setting, it is grown out of influences and decisions I made specifically to run a D&D campaign. My dislike for clerics and demi humans as playable races are heavily evident (Although originally I had planned to include such things to provide a familiar environment for players, I binned them. It hasn’t proved to be a problem.) As a result it draws in all the things I think are good influences for some old school D&D. Particularly a game played over google hangouts with a semi rotating cast of players. It’s a sword and sorcery setting, it has a particular aesthetic that I find easy to call up and work with. Another blogger, I forget who but would be happy to be reminded, stated that posts of random setting notes or influences act like magic spells a GM can read to instantly invoke the required mindset to run that game. That’s important I think. When my head is in the right place for a game is when it tends to sing. Players doing standard player things, like going off in unforeseen directions and deciding on courses of action that there is no prepared material for, are easier to cope with. Indeed this is where the fun of running a game is, even if it can seem daunting at times.

So no Runequest for me, at least until I enter retirement and my projected gaming renaissance. It looks really cool though...

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Running Carcosa

I ran Carcosa and I’m not sure I liked it.

Now by that I mean I had a great time in game, the players were excellent and it was fun, but the product didn’t really pan out for me the way I hoped. I will put a slight caveat on this as I accept that perhaps my expectations were too high.

So I have the Lamentations of the Flame Princess pdf version of Carcosa and as pdfs go, it’s very pretty. The art is evocative of the doomed world depicted in the text and it is a flavourful thing as a whole. It comes tremendously well reviewed by several sources and the depth of those reviews is inspiring. There’s controversy: The sorcerous rituals described in the book are graphic and unpleasant. However this is D&D reimagined on an alien planet; inhabited by physical incarnations of lovecraftian Mythos entities, space aliens and mutated dinosaurs. It’s grim in the extreme. The kind of world where the hero never made it to Mount Doom with the ring and was instead eviscerated by the MiGo in the lightless caverns beneath a Shrine to Nyarlathotep.

It got into my brain in a big way. I was drawing mutant dinosaurs and space aliens in battle suits all over my notebook at work. Plus I thought as a hyperlinked pdf of a hex crawl it would easy to run with next to no prep. I mean yes some of the hex descriptions are terse but across the Internet everyone was banging on about how great this was as it inspired GM creativity and other such marvels. 

Now at the time I was running my Grim North game and if I was going to take on another weekly session then it had to be prep light. The Grim North basically ran itself from a series of tables and a few minutes staring out of the window for inspiration so if Carcosa was going to work then it needed to do so on that or less.

Carcosa has tables. You can generate unique robots and Spawn of Shub Niggurath. It’s not quick though...

The hex map of Carcosa is functional but no more. I like a map to have notes or at least terrain indicators or something. This is a series of numbered hexes. Strongholds and settlements are not marked. Pressing on a hex takes you to a description of its points of interest (of which there are two per hex.) These do not link back to the map.

I found it quite difficult to keep track of and would end up sketching my own maps out prior to each session. Obviously maps I created for my own use were going to be more user friendly for me but this felt like an unnecessary ball ache. I already had a map, it just wasn’t helping run the game. Likewise I veered off the actual hex description thingies quite a lot. I began to insert more and more of my own material. Quick dungeons I’d drawn. NPCs I devised. An underground ruined city with warring factions of mutants, a rogue sorcerer and a hidden community of Deep Ones. Basically it was turning into work. I was doing more prep for this than any other game.

That wasn’t the plan. I also began to find the settings limitations stifling. Mutant dinosaurs are cool but with PCs dying every session from relatively minor threats, they weren’t going to be going toe to toe with a 16HD Orange Tyrannosaur covered in poisonous green spines. Also it seemed to me that the Cthulhu Mythos was ubiquitous at the time. It began to feel a bit hackneyed. At least to me. There was basically no need for money. Space alien technology was  the only thing of worth and it could not be traded, only salvaged from the bloody corpses of your foes. Or friends. Or any random passer by that had it.

There were some really cool moments over the course of the campaign before work began to interfere and it fizzled out. One player accidentally summoning some Byakhee while invoking the name of Hastur to gain an advantage in combat and dying as a result. Players firing their space alien beam rifles at pursuing velociraptors while riding on the back of a huge vegetation covered dinosaur. The mutant faction war in the ruined underground city was extremely fun to run (although again something I had come up with whole cloth.) I enjoyed playing all the NPCs as total bell ends of one stripe or another.

I guess my point overall with it is that Carcosa does not live in my imagination. I had to work hard to make it do so and this made it difficult for me to run games. It’s not the product’s fault really. Nor the setting. It just doesn’t do what I was planning and I had to play it to find that out.

I recommend you give it a go and see if your experiences are different.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Dragon Warriors: Role Playing Consequences

Legend is a world with consequences. That's part of the appeal. One of, in fact the main reason we play Dragon Warriors  is love of the setting. It's that authentic dark age/early medieval feel (excepting the beliefs of folklore and myth are probably true.) So, maintaining belief in the power of the church and the integrity of the feudal system are important. The player characters might be the protagonists but the social order reigns supreme. It's something that doesn't normally sit well with our modern mindset. Equality, or the struggle towards it is a huge part of our world. In the fantasy world of Legend there is no equality. In fact the laws of the land exist to ensure that. Supposedly feudal obligations work both ways but it's never the peasants feasting on venison and quaffing fine wines in the high castle. Of course the player characters exist outside of this structure as lordless wanderers, vagabonds and barbarians. Players don't like to kowtow to NPCs, this is one of the earliest things we learn as a GM. However if you fail to show the proper respect to the duke, well, he's going to do something about it. This is dangerous ground. Most PCs will fight to the death rather than submit to capture. It's not great roleplaying but very few people sign up for an RPG to feel powerless. 

And so this brings us to the central tension of our last session of Dragon Warriors. Rolof the Mercanian, had occasion to affront a member of the local gentry. He manhandled him out of the bed of the village alewife and threw him out into the dirt in just his small clothes. Now Rolof knew this man to be Sir Grathan, lord of the manor from the next village, but he was on a roll of sorts and didn't listen to the warnings of his compatriots. However the following morning Sir Grathan returns, this time armed and armoured, and with six men at arms in tow. They seize Rolof, who acquiesces without a fight, and drag him outside. The villagers are roused in the process. Although their friend Father Caedric attempts to intercede on his behalf, the affronted knight will have none of it. He passes sentence, considering himself to be merciful he will only slit Rolof's nose. This does not go down well with the players. Rolof refuses to have his nose slit and begins to try and fight his way free. His companions join him, even though they don't fancy the odds and there are murmurs of TPK...

It's swords drawn. Things have escalated quickly and at the spilling of blood, well, that'll be the point of no return. The tension is palpable. However, in a remarkable change of heart Rolof agreed to submit to the punishment. His nose was slit, he was permanently disfigured, but everyone lives to fight another day. 

Role playing was the winner overall.

It doesn’t end there though, as Rolof privately swears vengeance on Sir Grathan. When he learns later that his enemy has a long standing feud with another knight of equal status, he decides to seek this individual out and offer his services...

Monday, 6 March 2017

Carcosa, Generating Your Character

For those who are unsure, or bad at Google, Carcosa is a weird-horror science-fantasy setting. It's a hexcrawl that incorporates Cthulhu mythos elements, alien technology, dinosaurs and other weirdness run using Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules.

Create character as normal using Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules.

Classes are fighter, specialist and sorcerer. Fighter and specialist are as per the rulebook, sorcerer is a a bit different.

A sorcerer progresses as a fighter but at a much slower rate and has slightly better saving throws at first level. The sorcerer has the ability to use ritual magic to summon, bind, entrap, torture or banish various Lovecraftian enitities. These rituals are lengthy and often profane. With the exception of banishment all require human sacrifice as a bare minimum. A 1st level sorcerer starts play with no known rituals and must seek knowledge of them through adventuring.


All characters may start with the weapon of their choice and six other items of equipment (which may include a knife or dagger.) black powder firearms do not exist on Carcosa and no PC may start with any space alien tech.

Characters may originate as any of the colours of man, and can choose or determine this randomly.


All the colours are vivid and pronounced. I.e. green is like grass, white as if bleached.

Jale and Ulfire are described thusly:

"Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful [and] jale [to be] dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous." A Voyage to Arcturus.

Bone men have transparent flesh meaning their skeletons are always visible.

Dolm is mixture of Ulfire and blue

Psionics will be a GM roll because I've messed with the percentages and can't be bothered to type them out.

All characters bear a strange tattoo on the inside of their left wrist that depicts five serpents each swallowing their own tail, arranged in a circular pattern of interlocking rings.

Each character exhibits what they believe to be artificially induced amnesia. They have memories of a happy childhood growing up in a village with their own people, which they consider suspicious. They also have sketchy memories of being held prisoner in an underground complex they know only as "the Facility." They cannot remember who their captors were, only that experiments were conducted on them. They do not remember any release or escape only that they found themselves wandering the wastes of Carcosa occasionally meeting another individual who had the same tattoo and shattered memories.

(Essentially this is a conceit to allow a drop in style of play. Drop in players and the new characters following inevitable PC deaths can immediately band together over this common experience and it also means that PCs require no prior knowledge of Carcosa as a setting)

Optional traits (pinched from this guy) Roll d20 to differentiate your character from the norm (no pressure):

1. Pierced lips, eyebrows, ears and nostrils. (+1 cha)
2. Ritual Scarification (acid, cuts, burning or insect bites). (-1 con)
3. Lips removed or nose removed (-1 cha)
4. Dyed hair.
5. Painted face/teeth or body.
6. Elaborate hairstyle or beard.
7. Filed Teeth (bite for 1-4 dam)
8. Entirely hairless
9. Elaborate birthmark denoting favour/ill favour of the gods (50% chance of either -1 or +1 to all saves)
10. Battle scar (start with 200 xp)
11. Feathered headdress
12. Missing finger (-1 dex)
13. Wears ornate mask at all times if possible
14. Slave brand or scarification from shackles
15. Cannibal
16. Receives Visions (+1 wis)
17. Strange tribal superstition (must eat at least 1 pound of dirt each day, eats hearts of enemies, makes fetishes of enemy remains etc.)
18. Equipment is elaborately scrimshawed (150% original value to the right buyer)
19. Golden or diamond teeth (start with additional 3d6 * 10 gp, but has to be removed)
20. Emanciated ghoul-like physique (+1 dex, -1 str).

Recommended reading if you wish more information about the setting: SorceryGeneral review of setting