Sunday, 31 March 2019

Things That Have Worked: Rumour Posts

My Grim North game was run via Google Hangouts and had its own G+ community by which it was managed. This was good for organising the actual sessions as well as posting up the after action reports; who gained what XP and what the share of the loot was etc. 

Yeah, I can meme shit

Also at one point, probably after reading someone else’s blog on the subject (it might have been the Hill Cantons, I don’t really remember,) I started to post a weekly pre game selection of rumours. I have mentioned previously that the game nearly always started in the House of Mercenaries, Sellspears and Blades for Hire with the various paid work available posted to the board marked “Jobs.” In addition to this was the PCs always had the option of doing whatever the fuck they wanted, after all there are no railroads here. 

Do not play here: Stay off the railroad kids

That’s great and everything but information is crucial here. Rumours are a double defo, carved in stone, baby’s eyes, must have for sandbox gaming. Without that information the player characters either have to interrogate the GM or just go along with the adventure du jour, which is fine every once in a while. However, self motivated PCs are gold for a gamesmaster, therefore throwing out as many hooks and tit bits of setting info as possible for them to bite on is elementary to enabling them to be so.

Crucially it adds depth to the environment. If ten foot poles are suddenly banned in the city then that has implications for the average group of dungeon crawling fools. And in Nox Aeterna, poles over six feet in length are indeed banned, player speculation indicated it was Big Carpentry throwing their political weight around.

By posting these rumours to the G+ community a couple of days before the game a few things were achieved that worked in my favour as GM. Discussion via the Internet prior to the week’s session; as a result sometimes the players chatted online about the game before we played, this saved valuable “air time” given we were generally operating over mixed time zones and had roughly three hours to play. It allowed me to drip feed some random bits of setting info in; this was a game with a semi rotating cast of players so not everyone was in every game. By having everyone get the rumours if they read the rumour post it kept them connected to the setting and for those who were interested it was an additional source of setting info. 

Great gaming environment: Not literally

I think this is my favourite: It provides the player characters with a sense that the game world has depth. When the game is on then the player characters are the stars. We were playing Swords & Wizardry White Box so they’re not the X-men but the game is about them. There’s no fucking Elminster of the Grim North. This said, the world still turns. So if the PCs don’t bite on a hook then perhaps they hear about how that turns out on the rumour mill. Or it’s inconsequential fluff that I just came up with on the spot and can’t think of any way to usefully incorporate it at the table so I’m just sticking it out there and maybe you read it, maybe you don’t, maybe it adds to your immersion or maybe it doesn’t. Because let’s face it, not everyone is going to read that stuff or even care, and that’s fine too. Just showing up in the hangout on time, fully clothed, with your dice and character sheet handy is good enough for me.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

The Tavern at the End of the Multiverse

This was an idea I had for a drop in or Flailsnails style of online game. The idea being a tavern that exists in every reality, or travels between them at random, and conveniently sits atop a mythic underworld of campaign spanning proportions. A megadungeon that exists simultaneously in every campaign world and none.

So we combine the well used tropes, or dare I say clichés, of starting in a tavern and it having a fucking massive dungeon beneath it to go and adventure in. Also by starting and finishing each session in the tap room we can accommodate a drop in style of play. The cross-reality nature of the place means it is flailsnails compatible.

I didn’t really get that far with developing this but what I did have follows..

It’s called the Purple Sloth Tavern. This is an unsubtle tip of the hat to an old T&T gamebook that partially serves as inspiration for the place.

Josh Kirby, ladies and gentlemen...

The barman is Stanley, an anthropomorphic sloth, he’s a lot quicker than you might imagine and also the source of rumours the party might gather before heading down into the depths.

There’s a market in the courtyard outside that will allow does a fine trade in adventuring equipment and the fencing of looted treasure.

The are stables and everything else you might expect to find in a regular tavern, after all you can spend the night, eat, drink and gamble there if you wish. Carousing is optional but encouraged.

The entrance to the mythic underworld is via the cellar. Because Cool, and also cliché. At least this is the one that everyone knows about and the one that Stanley will give you for free. There are rumours of entrances originating elsewhere in the tavern that lead to various different parts of the dungeon below. However this knowledge is not freely available to starting characters.

The dungeon follows standard old school conventions and has factions and “themed” areas and all that jazz. Or at least in theory it does as I only got as far as drawing a bit of the level one map and adding two or three potential factions for those areas. For although I like this idea as a set up, and while it is more realistic in terms of what sort of game I can actually play given time constraints and availability, drawing a huge, fuck off map and/or keying it is not an exciting prospect for me. 

Huge fuck off map by Dyson Logos

There are tricks and so forth available for faster megadungeon creation than the labour intensive “just get on with it” method but in a spectacular display of nose cutting to spite face, my sense of stubborn I-will-create-my-own-material-for-my-games-whether-it’s-achievable-or-not fails to permit such short cuts.

A seed for a style of play that I should probably do more with but in all likelihood will not.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Clerical Errors

I don’t hate clerics, I just think they’re limited as an archetype. Fighter, Magic User and Thief are much broader in their application, Rogue even more so (to use the new parlance,) but the existence of the D&D cleric in your setting implies quite a lot about it that the other classes do not. So, in the right setting the cleric is great. However; if we accept that I like to run games that generally follow either a low fantasy or sword & sorcery theme then clerics, with their magic powers direct from the gods, do not appear thematically appropriate.
Aleea, refusing to accept she is not thematically appropriate 

However the clerics access to healing magic and the ability to turn undead is baked into the game. A low level D&D party’s chances of survival are greatly increased by the presence of the cleric to hold off the dreaded level draining wights and produce cure light wounds spells, especially as those “light wounds” are often near fatal. Even if we examine TSR’s ultimate our D&D is different world, Dark Sun, they’re still plugging away with the cleric even though “there are no True Gods of Athas” is one of the stated tenets of the setting. I could digress about how Dark Sun is the biggest false alarm in gaming but staying on the cleric they are now the worshippers of elemental beings (these are not GODS though, no freaking way) who provide them with spells and the power to turn the undead.

The slightly maligned AD&D 2edition rules allowed for a fair bit of variance in the class with the Priests of Specific Mythos. This could end up being a lot of work though as you tailored the class to fit each God from your setting but also doesn’t solve the problem if your approach is one where direct godly involvement in the PCs’ lives is limited.
Basically, my sister’s first D&D character 

And so what do I do with this big chunk of the rules, if the religious nature of the class does not fit my gaming aesthetic? Be less pretentious is certainly a valid answer. 

However if you are aware of Crypts and Things, Newt Newport has a tasty little answer for sword & sorcery games. In those rules, based on Swords & Wizardry with tweaks from Akratic Wizardry, the cleric and magic user are combined into a Magician class. The Magician has access to spells from a combined magic user and cleric list divided into white, grey and black magic. White magic contains your healing spells and so forth, grey has illusion and similar, Black is destructive or morally dubious. This is nice and I really like it. In fact I really Crypts and Things in its entirety and I recommend you check it out if you have not done so.

My solution to clerical issues in my Grim North setting was to reskin them. I didn’t want any sort of organised spellcasters existing outside of small cults and cabals. A powerful series of Churches with magic at their disposal didn’t suit the ideas I had for religion. I declared clerics were now “mystics.” Their powers were virtually the same but were psychic in origin rather than bestowed by the gods. We were playing S&W White Box and the only real mechanical difference I made was to remove the ability to turn undead and instead advance the spell progression so that they had a spell at 1st level. I also reskinned the spell names so they seemed more like psychic powers than clerical spells. I mean I’m not sure what the overall effect on the game this tinkering had but it certainly made me feel better about the whole thing. 

Also Paul C, better known these days as The Wizard of Macke Town, wrote this up into a tidy little pdf for Mystic players to refer to, available here.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

On The Isle of Dread

The Isle of Dread is my favourite old D&D module. This isn’t a review, it’s a self indulgent nostalgia post. My copy of the Isle of Dread arrived one Christmas along with the D&D Expert set. You see I was getting quite good at D&D by this point and Basic no longer applied. I was definitely more of an expert. If you weere a child of Mentzer Basic like me then there was no module included in your Red Box, just an intro adventure in the DM’s book. However once I had the Expert Set I owned an honest to god real module, and it was good too.

Let me tell you of the days of high adventure... and dinosaurs

If you’re not familiar with the Ise of Dread it’s a hex crawl set on what amounts to Skull Island from the King Kong films complete with pirates, lost civilisations and dinosaurs. This type of pulpy, sword and sorcery adventure is exactly what I want from my D&D games. The only thing really missing from this is a gargantuan ape of some kind.

I ran this in 2017 in the bar at Dragonmeet for about six hours. I could’ve gone way longer but people had trains to catch. I did tease the presence of a huge albino ape but the PCs never actually met one. Instead they befriended the cat people, fought with the spider possessed locals (in a slight change from the original text I made the Aranea fist sized, mind controlling spiders that rode their human slaves as mounts), were on the receiving end of a triceratops rampage and loads more.

What this module delivers is encounter tables and adventure locations. Some are simple lairs but there’s a proper dungeon on Taboo Island too. Exploring the Isle is enough fun on its own but it’s possible to add whatever you like to this framework, develop the various factions, go pulp adventure crazy. I mean the cover to my copy (the orange one) has a Viking, a mongol warrior and a wizard fighting a T-Rex. That’s some good D&D right there. Throw a few five room dungeons in there and you’ve got the makings of a short campaign.

This is, for me, where D&D games shine. Play styles are exactly that and you can do anything with almost any game and it still be a good time. Pulp sword and sorcery is retro D&D all day for me though.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Expressing the Setting Through Play

I have this tendency to approach RPGs in a top down fashion. I generally decide on an aesthetic for a setting and then make lists of elements to include that match that setting, consider religion, cultures, ancient history, that sort of thing. Now I’m not talking about developing any of this things to any particular extent. I do not have for example reams of notes on any of this material but probably about enough to fit on the average blog post or sheet of A4 paper.

Then generally what happens is I will run games in this setting that do not really relate to any of the material I originally planned. For example if the woods are full of ruins from an ancient civilisation now overrun with beastmen of sorcerous origin and the players spend six sessions in the woods and over fifty in the city then they aren’t going to get the experience you had originally planned (and so I hang my head in a modicum of shame.)

Being beastman positive can only help the setting

I wholeheartedly accept that this is often a function of prep meets play, or no plan survives contact with the enemy... I mean players. However, for example if in my Grim North game there are ancient cultures that are the source of nearly all modern magical learning and I have magic user player characters that do not even know the names of these cultures then I have probably failed them in some way as a GM. Not to any great extent but nonetheless I at least should be doing better. After all, I don’t really expect that the players will be as interested in the nature of the GM’s carefully crafted basis for a game as they are in its gleeful destruction (I jest of course, I do not actually view the players in my games as the enemy, or as anarchic toddlers who only wish to destroy what I have painstakingly built.) However setting information can enrich play for those who are interested. If you want your players to be self motivated sand box protagonists, and this is to be encouraged (Dragonlance be damned,) then they need a flow of information on which to act.

Just say No: Metaplot and railroad ahoy.

That flow coming from rumours is good but the discovery of previously unknown setting elements provides hooks that tie the PCs closer to the game and allow them to interact better with what is out there. They need to know what’s on the table. Information dump is a poor way to communicate this. Show, don’t tell as the old RPG axiom dictates.

Therefore I should perhaps express my setting through the adventures that the players discover right from the off. Instead of the meta lists of setting elements to incorporate at a later date, these should immediately be turned into things the PCs can encounter. For example I like the idea of dinosaur men in the wilderness so I should write a big dinosaur men encounter. Maybe stick it in a prominent place on the encounter tables. Or have them be the antagonists in a dungeon or mystery or whatever adventure I’m planning for the next session. I should be getting my setting aesthetic front and centre through the challenges the PCs face. I mean I don’t want to beat them over the head with it but to hark back to my previous example, if they want to learn resurrection magic and they don’t know that the majority of necromantic wizardry originates with the ancient death magicians of accursed Xidia then they’re off to a bad start. However if they’ve bashed up a dungeon of Xidian origin and encounter all sorts of necromantic shenanigans then at least they know where to begin.

This way hopefully I’m better translating the feel I had for the setting to the players through their actual adventuring experiences than by just lecturing them about it in some GM soliloquy that sounds boring to me even before I’ve delivered it. Never mind having to sit through it as a player.

I guess the TL:DR version for me is, setting wise: top down creation, bottom up expression.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Appendix N: Dragon Warriors, part four

The continuation of my Dragon Warriors inspirational media posts. I recommend starting at the beginning.

Black Death

This film, brought to my attention by Dave Morris blog, is referred to only partly tongue in cheek as the Dragon Warriors movie. It has a suitably dark and downbeat feel to it. Pagans in the fens, the ruthless and powerful church, the plague, masses of associated suspicion and superstition, dirt, grim battles and the walking spoiler Sean Bean stars so no one is expecting a happy ending here.

Some additional media of note:

Fictoplasm is generally a good listen regardless but the two episodes below relate directly to this blog series:

Lyonesse (Click here) with Dave Morris and Tim Harford

The Chronicles of Prydain (Click here) with Tim Harford

The Grognard Files, another recommended podcast, this time discussing..

Robin of Sherwood (Click this bit), with a promised part two to follow.

And of course saving the most relevant for the Dragon Warriors curious until last: Dave Morris’ blog posts with the label “Legend” (and click) Find here discussions of the nature of magic and of faeries, some play reports from his games, Legend scenarios and loads more great stuff.

Appendix N: Dragon Warriors, part three

Three more media offerings for that authentic Legend feel.

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Excellent tale of ordinary folk amongst the plague. No fixation upon the armed gentry here. Eerie and character driven. Negative points for clumsy use of anagrams though.

No knights in shining armour here

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

Saxons and Danes for your Elleslandic games. The TV series as useful as the books if you can get over the shapes of the Saxon shields. The beliefs of the characters are what makes this important to me. Belief in a curse or the words of an oracle or sorcerer seems to change reality or the perception of it. The importance of the church is prominent here too. Plus there’s decent battles and drama and so forth.
Getting your shield wall on


John Boorman’s very atmospheric film about the eponymous blade. We get a spot on depiction of the costs of sorcery here. Merlin pays a heavy price for the magics he employs in the service of the family Pendragon.

Being a knight, not all it’s cracked up to be.

Appendix N: Dragon Warriors, part two

Continuing my discussion of useful media as it relates to Dragon Warriors RPG, part one located... well, these posts are sequential so, it’s the one before this..

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

Clarke’s short stories set in the same world as her more successful novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel. These really capture the whimsically dangerous nature of faeries. Also it’s the protagonists’ understanding of the rules of these interactions that allows them victories as opposed to any superior force of arms or similar.

The illustrations aren’t half bad either

The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Essential non fiction. What we get here is a book about the day to day life of medieval folk from a qualified historical perspective. It’s emminently readable with none of the dryness associated with scholastic history books.

Also check out the reviews. People love this book.

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

Interesting take on the Arthurian myth. The depiction of Merlin is particularly good. No one can be sure if his magic is real or not. Or is it that his trickery, wisdom and secret knowledge are a kind of magic in themselves?

More helmets should have cool intrinsic war masks

Appendix N: Dragon Warriors, part one

At the back of the original Dungeon Masters Guide amongst the tables for random harlot encounters and suchlike was the much discussed Appendix N. This being the literary antecendents of the Dungeons & Dragons game. For the modern reader/consumer of multi media I have tried to compile a short list of useful media for the running of Dragon Warriors type games based in Legend or a reasonable facsimile there of. These are less influences on the game as it was created but more influential in how a modern GM might run Legend, as I see it at least. We’re generally talking theme and atmosphere here, these are the things that inspire in me in the mood appropriate for DW. This is in four parts because of image size and tiny editing windows on blogger..

Robin of Sherwood

The classic British TV series. This is the definitive Robin Hood for me. It still holds up well to these eyes. There is magic here but it’s low key, perhaps due to special effects limitations. However it is all the more creepy because of it. The whole thing drips atmosphere. Excellent.

Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

Cracking stuff based in Welsh myth. Fantastic but not overly so. These are children’s books, so not as grim as we might like for a Legend game. However the Cauldron Born and the Huntsmen of Annuvin are perfect. Like a Mabinogion in easily digestible form.

Straight outta Jewelspider 

Lyonesse by Jack Vance

Particularly his handling of fairies. Depicted as capricious and callous, albeit a bit rapey in places and thoroughly whimsical throughout. The adventures of Dhrun and Madouc are all about what we want here. The nature of wizards is very interesting too.

A classic 

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Dreamlands D&D

Amongst grown up game players there is often great nostalgia for a time when we used to ride our bikes around to our friends’ houses and play RPGs all day and night. As adults this type of gaming is often lost to us as so called responsibilities eat up so much of our time. As a result, scheduling regular RPG sessions with the same group can be challenging. In the extreme.

This being the case, I’m always interested in framing devices for games that allow drop in and out play such as the famous West Marches or  the Flailsnails model. My own Grim North game was by, I hesitate to say design... means of fortunate accident known to function this way. New options are always welcome in this regard, who knows when they may come in handy.

Over the winter I had chance to read Ben L’s excellent zine Through Ultan’s Door which depicts a dungeon in his campaign world derived from HP Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. Up until this point I was not familiar with those works. Upon reading Ben’s zine I immediately consumed “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” and was captivated.

The Dreamlands: Legit D&D as fuck

For I had found, probably a hundred years after everyone else, a perfect framing device for drop in D&D (or the other role playing game of your preference.) As dreamers the PCs need only to breach the wall of sleep in order to partake in fantastic adventures that are limited by only the imagination. Everyone knows that dreams are flighty and inconsistent, fantastic and often bizarre. PCs enteringvthe lands of dreams could easily move from one fantastic episode to the next withoutt there being any break in the verisimilitude of the campaign. If Dave and Andy can’t make it this week because they’ve got parents night or karate class, it is easily explained by their PCs fading back to the waking world and they can slot back into whatever is going on once they return to the land of dreams.

Judge this by its cover and try and withhold your joy...

I feel like I could go on at length about this, and I might, but I see the land of dreams as a Matrix like environment. Not every dreamer has enough control over their dream state to be an adventurer. Some dream mundane dreams of carpentry and scribe work. Others dream themselves fantastic heroes or terrible villains. Creatures from nightmare, self aware dream beings, gods and devils abound. Essentially anything goes as you pass from one dream realm to another. Want to run a series of unrelated modules? That’s fine. Slumbering Ursine Dunes to Deep Carbon Observatory to the Isle of Dread is no drama. Want to have some sort of over arching meta plot for the PCs to thwart? Well, I urge that you don’t, we prefer the emergent stories we get from playing old school rogueish games around these parts but if that’s your thing then have at it.

This has got legs in my opinion... Remind me to tell you about the Tavern at the End of the Multiverse some time too.