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.

Monday, 9 August 2021

DW Yamato: Ki and Sumo

 I have, so far,  added two house rules for my Dragon Warriors Yamato campaign. DW is such a light system that it’s easy to modify to your taste and there’s nothing unified about the rules, so changing one bit isn’t going to affect anything else. As we’re going for an pseudo Japanese feudal feel I’ve gone for some basic Ki rules and a bit of sumo. 


Now these are both complex and interesting subjects that definitely deserve a more in depth treatment than I’m going to give them but this is two small adaptations to an old rules light system for my home game so I’m not prepared to massively go to town on this. 


Ki


For game purposes this is grossly oversimplified as spirit energy and quantified by Ki points. Player Characters have a pool of these, starting with one, that they can spend to gain Advantage on a dice roll (ie roll twice and take the best result.) Characters who entirely deplete their Ki reserves will recover one following a good night’s sleep. Otherwise Ki is awarded by GM fiat for positive supernatural interactions and play rewards. Eg all my players revived a point of Ki for freeing a lake spirit that had been imprisoned by someone believing themselves to be the servant of a demon god. 


In narrative terms this represents a character’s ability, through martial/meditative/magical training, to focus their spirit into mundane tasks to achieve exceptional results when the pressure is on. As a feature they are required to state they are spending Ki before they roll.




Sumo


Dragon Warriors has no official rules for grappling or wrestling of any kind so in order to resolve a bout of sumo with a boisterous Yamawaro (a type of mountain yokai) I dug into my memory for old rules from other systems that I might be happy with. In general grappling is hard to get right in RPGs. Either the author of the rules doesn’t understand it or they understand it too well giving rise to the situation that grappling is usually abstracted too much or present led in unnecessarily granular detail. Also a sumo bout has very specific rules that don’t necessarily apply to wrestling with an opponent under life and death conditions. Sumo rules therefore do not follow the standard combat rules of DW but instead I settle for the following gross oversimplification of this ancient and complex martial sport:


Each participant calculates a sumo score. This is the average of their Strength, Reflexes and Attack scores. To simulate the fast pace of a sumo bout an opposed roll under the sumo score is made with the highest success on the die showing an advantage. Two consecutive advantages result in victory, and you can narrate this however you like such as pushing your opponent directly out of the competition ring or throwing them to the ground in spectacular style. Any roll which is exactly equal to the sumo score is a critical and results in instant and overwhelming victory, unless the opponent also rolls a critical in which case there is a tie....


In my game Khasan, a shipwrecked Khanates barbarian, was soundly thrashed by the one eyed, hirsute mountain spirit but did earn a point of Ki out of it. 

Friday, 6 August 2021

DCC RPG, and I

I often think in terms of things I would like to do with games. The Great Hall of RPG neglect, the things I have bought and resigned to the shelf never to be played. It’s not that big compared to some. However while I stare out of the window wistfully dreaming of all the campaigns I would run if only I didn’t have to work for a living or have any other commitment outside of playing games it occurs to me that I have actually achieved some of this stuff in recent years. I mean, it’s not a great achievement like climbing Mount Everest or harpooning the great white whale (not that I would, he’s probably an endangered species.)


But I’m going to pat myself on the back for doing things I enjoy in my spare time with some explanation. 


So I used to joke that although I had never played it, I used the Dungeon Crawl Classics rules more than anything else. This was because I used to rest my iPad on the rule book so it sat at a good height for video calls in every game I played. In 2020 I actually played (and ran) DCC RPG and it was good. Whilst the world was locking its doors against coronavirus I made some new friends via long time gaming buddy Jürgen and he ran a campaign of DCC for us (generously playing in English as I was the only non-German participant.) Almost simultaneously I was invited by Alex who plays in my Dragon Warriors to join a group running through a mini campaign of the Chained Coffin. 


So I played as an actual player in someone else’s actual games, which was really nice for a change. Dungeon Crawl Classics turned out to be a fun system with a lot of support (Shout out to Purple Sorcerer online tools, they’re great) and an enthusiastic community of players. I actually wrote two funnels for it that I subsequently ran (one as a con game at Neal Bensons online BurritoCon) and used it to run a short Crawljammer campaign. So, DCC spelljammer and it’s cool, although it ended as I struggled to find time to prep and run it as I returned to more normal working life. 



As a player I survived the Hole in the Sky and (I think) Well of the Worm which are two fine published modules before my former gravedigger turned world’s most average wizard moved to a tropical island to loot tombs and misrepresent himself as the god of some local people. He also invented the shovel-staff, a deadly combination of digging implement and wizardry apparatus (although fitting a silver spear point to one end may have been a step too far.)


In the Chained Coffin campaign we levelled up each session; playing through a series of adventures set in the Shudder Mountains, the Appalachian-like backdrop for the main adventure; until we reached 5th level and took on the the eponymous Chained Coffin itself. 


My own games started with attempt to go full cosmic with the funnel Crashed Black Ziggurat from Outer Space. A fairly basic dungeon crawl I devised but as a lead in to DCC space adventures either by stealing a Crawljammer ship or using magic portals to escape the imploding Chaos Singularity at the heart of the Ziggurat (it’s actually a step-pyramid but ziggurat is a much cooler word.) From there I segued into the adventure from the back of Crawljammer #1 (it’s a zine, a really good zine, check it out) “Cry Freedom and Let Slip the Batmen of Venus” and then back to my own stuff as the PCs recovered their own Crawljammer vessel and came to rest at a free port inside a petrified giant aetheric space whale.


Meanwhile at the online version of BurritoCon I ran Warriors of the Grim North, another funnel based in my original sword & sorcery setting about street gangs attempting to survive the aftermath of a disastrous meeting, with gigantic nods to Street Kids of Ur-Hadad and of course the classic movie from which that plot was clumsily stolen. 


I’m not currently playing DCC but I would go back to it in an instant. I considered making it the House system for the Grim North, should I ever run that again, but it would need tweaks to fit that setting. It’s basically too much work to hack IMHO, as spell and patron write ups are too involved for my lazy approach to preparation. So it will probably remain in my back pocket as something I could run at fairly short notice and know it would be a good time. 

Monday, 26 July 2021

Dragon Warriors: Yamato

 I may have mentioned this but Book 6 of the original Dragon Warriors is the best book. It has all the top quality Legend content and atmosphere that can be fitted into one small paperback.



In addition to quality information about Legend, the setting devised by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson, it discusses the possibility setting your Dragon Warriors games elsewhere. The options presented are feudal Japan, Pre Colombian Mexico and Roman Britain, as well as a discussion of various settings from fantasy literature. In typical Dave Morris fashion the reader is encouraged to look beyond Tolkien and Robert E. Howard to Leiber, Vance and MAR Barker. It was my first introduction to a lot of these authors and first exposure to Barker’s world of Tékumel (perhaps more on that later.)


For many years it was this that occupied my mind....





So when our Sunday night Dragon Warriors campaign came to a somewhat fitting, downbeat ending (with the PCs all dying while attempting to put to rest an ancient evil they had accidentally awakened several irl years earlier) something was required to fill the void on Sunday nights. We switched to Talislanta for a change of pace and enjoyed a short 12 session campaign of freewheeling sword and sorcery mayhem. It was a lot of fun by heart yearned for the dank forests and crumbling castles of Ellesland. 


However, the players began to generate characters that didn’t really fit with what I had planned. A khanates barbarian and his wise, wandering, Mystic friend... So I suggested we transpose the game to the east, to Yamato, a land of warring clans, spirits and demons.


And thus began our Yamato campaign, now a few months old. The PCs being a samurai, the aforementioned barbarian and their comrade who is an adept of Zen. They have been sent North by their daimyo into an isolated mountain valley cut off from the rest of his lands. With war brewing in the South, no larger force can be spared. Their mission is two fold: To bring the rogue minor clans of the valley back into the fold and to investigate the apparent disappearance of one of his generals who ventured into the same valley with a force of four hundred men and had not been heard from since. The idea behind this set up is the PCs have a set of problems and obligations to negotiate but also the autonomy to deal with them how they see fit. They carry letters of authority from the daimyo but have no further support from outside the valley


Running a game set in an analogue of medieval Japan has some challenges but is so far turning out to be very rewarding.