Saturday, 30 April 2016

Beyond the Waves: Playbooks

So the newborn has disrupted blogging for a bit. Anyway, here’s a playbook guide for Beyond the Waves, including:

  • new playbooks
  • tweaks for existing playbooks
  • miscellaneous notes

The whole document is here although it’s quite long at around 36 pages.

New playbooks

I’ve split out the new playbooks in a zip file here (Word docx format). They are:

  • The Pirate’s Protege: A swashbuckling warrior-rogue
  • The Wild Mage: A mage who walked into the heart of the island and learned the wild magic
  • The Pearl Diver: A rogue who knows all the island’s secrets
  • The Revenant: A dead soul that failed to cross the Ocean and washed up on the beach in a new body
  • The Triton Mercenary: A warrior from an ancient undersea race, who chose to walk on land and explore the human lands
  • The Itinerant Cartographer: An Elder character and a rogue, travelling across the Archipelago with the intention of mapping as much as they can — and training a pupil to carry on their work

At some point I’ll combine this content with the other blog posts… when I get 5 minutes. Yeah, right

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Beyond The Waves: Big Fish

Wallpaper_Leviathan_1280x960

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?

God tells Job how powerless he is against the Leviathan. Is it allegory for Satan, whom only God can oppose? Or is Leviathan a force of nature or indifferent deity, for whom mankind is an irrelevance?

Let’s discuss big fish in Beyond the Waves.

Origins

Monsters

These include the Aspidochelone or Kraken. Malign creatures that exist to drag humans below the waves, and personifications of cosmic evil.

Aspidochelone2-gks1633-danish-royal-library

(source: wikipedia)

Undines

Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun references Undines, gigantic women who are the concubines of Abaia, a gigantic, eldrich underwater monster. The undines are submarine giants. Perhaps they were once human, forced to exist in water once they became too massive to live on land. Crossing from land to water could be a magical trial, where the magician must survive in water through force of will, or perish. Over time they transform, gaining webbed hands and feet, etc.

Fish Riders

The mystical nature of the giant fish might also come from some associated human hero such as Paikea. The creature represents a force of nature and the rider is the spiritual force that directs it, for good or evil.

These are ideas for the GM — whatever the origin the sea creature various island religions may have different interpretations of what the Leviathan means (see the tables below).

Religion

How does each island culture regard the Leviathan?

  1. Does it feature in greetings, blessings, or curses?
  2. Do people wear amulets, charms? Do they inscribe images of the fish over their doors, in their boats, tattoos on their bodies?
  3. What does the fish mean to the islanders? Is it a demon, a wish-granter, a gateway to the other side of the ocean?

There could be more than one big fish, or there could be more than one interpretation of the big fish. See the tables.

Encounters

The Leviathan will turn up in various sea or land hexes. Treat these as Further Afield major locations. Settlements and cities will be on land, so the Leviathan should be sighted near the settlement (and no doubt will feature in that people’s religion). Ruins could be wrecks or underwater ruins. Monsters should be self-explanatory, and Otherworld or Source of Power could refer to mystical attributes of the creature itself. These can be Seen, Heard or Read About per the rules.

On Sea

  1. When the fish is seen, is it near or far?
  2. What signs are there that the fish is coming, or has been here? Wreckage, fish, strange colours in the sea?
  3. If the party encounter the fish on the water, how dangerous is it?

On Land

  1. How does the Fish influence local culture, religion, superstition?

Hooks

(No pun intended)

  1. The creature is a source of ambergris, which can make an enchanted potion. Scavengers follow in its wake, collecting marine and faecal smelling floating matter, because someone pays for that stuff.
  2. The god grants wishes to those that can catch it by the tail.
  3. A mariner escorting the party between islands has a grievance against the fish, and deviates from their course when it is sighted.
  4. Pirates hunt it for its skin, which will allow them to walk between worlds.
  5. A magical harpoon is stuck in its hide.
  6. You may ride to the underworld in the fish’s mouth, as long as you have enough rare incense to burn that it doesn’t swallow you.

Random Tables

To answer the questions, roll a dice or choose the answer that fits. Work in progress.

What does the fish mean to these islanders?

  1. The Fish is a force of nature. At times it may be cruel or benign. It exists to remind humans of their place in nature
  2. The Fish is a god of bounty, representing harvests, and appearing when the plankton blooms are plentiful.
  3. The Fish is a trickster, intent on luring sailors to their deaths.
  4. The Fish represents death, and carries dead souls across the Ocean.
  5. The Fish represents destruction, and where it appears violence will not be far behind. It can be appeased with a sacrifice.
  6. The Fish represents knowledge, which can be heard in its songs if you listen in the right way.
  7. The Fish is a transformed human, cursed to live in the sea.
  8. The Fish was once a human but is now a god with its own appetites.

Who talks about the Fish?

  1. It’s not discussed; it’s a pagan superstition at best, and frowned upon.
  2. It’s commonly referred to in a blessing of good luck, or polite greeting.
  3. It’s commonly used as a curse.
  4. It appears regularly in imagery.
  5. A hermit tries to warn people of the fish, but no-one will listen.
  6. There is a church and an organised religion.
  7. There’s a cranky magician at the edge of the island on an observation tower.
  8. A society (of assassins, magicians, or cultists) reveres the creature, and prays to it in secret. People fear talk of the Fish because they fear those that worship it. Tekeli li, etc.

What symbols do people carry of the Fish?

These can be worn as amulets to ward off its wrath, or to encourage its favour.

  1. Tribal tattoos.
  2. A charm, worn around the neck or as a bracelet, or on an earring.
  3. A plaque or carving into the hull of a boat for good fortune and strength.
  4. Paintings, murals, or tapestries depicting the Fish in the background of human events.
  5. A carving in the lintel of every front door in the village.
  6. A giant stone, laid in the centre of a stone circle, carved into the likeness of the fish and worn by the elements.

What tells you that the Fish may be near?

  1. Strange colours in the sky at night.
  2. The water turns a limpid green, as if you could see to the bottom.
  3. The water becomes opaque and reddish-black.
  4. Suddenly, a shoal of fish arrives, fleeing something.
  5. A whirlpool appears.
  6. On land, sudden and unexplained acts of violence or hot tempers.
  7. On land, mad proclamations by a seer.
  8. A terrible wind.
  9. A sudden calm and a break in the clouds.
  10. A human survivor, on a wreck, last of their crew, once swallowed and regurgitated.
  11. Ambergris, and possibly someone trying to collect it.
  12. Another ship in trouble.

Image.ashx

Monday, 28 September 2015

Beyond the Waves: Home Island

note: I forgot to post this earlier. It should come between the Introduction and the Playbooks essays when it’s compiled into one document

So, the “village” in Beyond the Waves could be located on a single island or it could be a cluster of islands nearby (maybe connected by rope ferries, bridges, or close enough to row across). If it’s a single island it could be large or small — note that the central island in Earthsea is still the size of Great Britain, so it could plausibly have all of the farming and even industry that the village in Beyond the Wall contains. However I prefer to keep the island small — perhaps unrealistically small (say, the scale of islands in Zelda: Windwaker) — and use the beaches and safe coastal waters as the “wall” in this version.

Recommend that the home island is about 3 hexes (medium).

So, let’s assume that the village is a single island — this will affect the “colour” of various moving parts:

  • The Boundary of the village will be the beach or nearby safe waters, perhaps bounded by a reef or spit, cliffs or a beach
  • Village industry will probably be pre-industrial (q.v. Earthsea) and include crafts, making use of natural resources and probably recycling, and getting a lot of food from the sea.
  • If there’s exotic materials like metals, these will have to have come from somewhere. Maybe there’s a mainland, or maybe there are caches of weapons and metallic goods somewhere. Or perhaps there’s a Dwarven volcanic island where metals are smelted, if you want to play to that stereotype.
  • Skills like Riding should be replaced with Sailing, and Farming with Fishing. Navigating and Swimming becomes important.

Fairly obvious, really. But none of this should affect the core activity of the game, which is the young protagonists striking out on their own and exploring the places beyond the village.

During character roll-up, make a map as you would normally do and insert the features that come from the playbooks into that map, bearing in mind it’s an island. If it’s an island cluster stick some features on islets (good place for hermits and witches). Etcetera.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Beyond the Waves: Island Generator

The Further Afield sandbox (or in this case, saltbox) is collaboratively (and if you like randomly) developed between all players at the table. One really important factor is the way the Village is at the centre of the map, and the location of other features is relative to the Village (distance and direction). Even when far away, home should always be present on the map.

Of course you don’t need to make the village (or island) central to the map; it could be at one end. This works if there is one big destination in mind (e.g. travelling from the Shire to Mount Doom, or Analand to Mampang). That makes your campaign a bit more of an epic journey than a free-roaming sandbox, but the principle is the same — the characters should always be thinking of home.

If you stick your archipelago next to a land mass it becomes bounded between the land and the ocean, so your archipelago could be long and thin as it follows the coastline of the mainland. At the same time archipelagos can contain thousands of islands and be located away from a land mass. In the early stages of the campaign you could only be looking at one small portion of the island chain, and concepts like Land and Ocean will be so distant that they may as well be myth.

Practical considerations:

  1. Because the islands can vary in size you may want to use smaller hexes or a bigger range between the “near” to “far” bands given in the Further Afield map sheet, or you’ll run out of space when packing islands in or you’ll only have a few islands on the map. Part of the feel of the saltbox should be that there are a lot of islands to explore, something that could take a lifetime. And there should be sea in between to cross.
  2. If the party plan to sail long distances, they should uncover new islands as they progress. This means your map needs breathing room, but also you won’t know what direction the map is going to expand in. The paper answer to this is to get another hex sheet and tape it to the original one, when you know what direction it’s going to expand in. There may be electronic tools that let you do the same thing (but I like paper)

OK, here’s how to grow the archipelago:

  1. Use the Further Afield rules for creating a location in turn, including direction, distance, and type. Do as many rounds as you have enthusiasm (or space on the hex map) for.
  2. Islands are small, medium or large.
  3. Stretches of sea between the islands can be any size; the distance between islands may determine what size of boat can sail those different channels.
  4. Each island has a Safety Slider. This affects the overall danger of the island itself, and extends to the surrounding waters. The Home Island (Village) is always +3 on this scale, i.e. safe.
  5. Each island is usually considered a “dungeon”, i.e. a single area to be explored. If there’s danger, the party should be in danger as long as they’re on the island. Safety rating applies to the whole area.

1. Where is your island?

Use the Further Afield rules for direction on the map, and distance (close/far). Also use the rules as you see fit for what kind of Major Location exists and whether the island is Heard, Seen or Learned and how accurate that information is (FA p.8).

2. How big is your island?

Choose a scale for your hexes. FA p.12 gives us a default distance of 1 hex = 10 miles; this means that small islands will be a 1-5 miles across (the size of Oxford), and big ones will be maybe 30 miles across (the size of London). That sounds OK to me. If there’s a settlement on the island it could be a mile across, and if there’s a major city it may be 5 miles.

Roll a d8:

1: 1 hex small island (entirely contained within 1 hex)
2: 2 hex small island
3-4: 3 hex medium island (usually one vertex of each hex entirely on land)
5-6: 4 hex medium island
7: Medium-large island, 5 or 6 hexes but all hexes contain beach/sea
8: Large island (at least 1 hex does not touch the sea on any side)

Each player draws their island within the above guidelines.

I’d suggest modifying the roll by +3 if the location is a Major City, and +1 if the place is a Settlement (see Further Afield).

3. Set the Safety Slider

Each island has a safety rating, set from +3 (very safe and welcoming) to -6 (really dangerous). This rating should apply to reaction rolls, rolls on random tables where there’s a mix of good and bad outcomes (with the bad outcomes low), etc.

This rating applies at sea, too. For every hex away from the island, move the safety slider 1 towards neutral (0). Use this rating to apply to chances of wandering monsters/pirates, dangerous weather events, etc.

Sometimes the danger is known, sometimes it’s secret. Sometimes the party have the wrong information (use the Further Afield rules for whether the information is accurate).

Big islands that are commercial hubs (where a lot of people of different cultures pass through) probably won’t range more than +/- 1. There’s a limit on how safe and friendly they can be due to size (they just become impersonal) and there’s a limit on how bad they can be, because if they’re dangerous to a lot of people then no-one will go near them to trade.

For islands (usually big islands) with a controlling the Safety should determine (or be determined by) how hostile that faction is to the PCs. (note: Faction rules to come later)

4. What’s on the Island?

Here are a few tables to start off.

Seashore

Roll 1d20 for each hex of island with seashore. Alternatively roll once for a small island, twice for medium and three times for large.

1: Rocks and cliffs, calm
2: Rocks and cliffs, dangerous currents or whirlpools
3: A cove with a rocky beach that floods at high tide; rip currents
4: A wide sandy beach with dunes
5: A lagoon separated by a barrier island or reef
6: A natural harbour, big enough for a boat
7: Rocky headland with a cove
8: A steep shingle beach with rough waters and seaweed
9: A spit, with or without a structure at its end
10: Small caves in a cliff-face (covered at high tide?)
11: Vanishing island (headland with vegetation — possibly seaweed — vanishes at high tide)
12: Beach with mud flats/quicksands
13: Shallows with rocks
14: Rocky beach with rock pools
15: Sandy beach with many small or large shells
16: Rocky headland with many narrow and tall rocks, rising like fingers from the sea
17: Cliffs with many ledges
18: A series of terraces
19: Headland and causeway, submerged with tide
20: Natural piers or sandbanks

Where to land your boat

Roll 1d8 and modify by +3 if it’s a City and +1 if it’s a Settlement. If it’s Ruins you have two options: either don’t modify the roll (so if there should be a pier and there isn’t, it’s in disrepair and can’t be used) or adjust is as you see fit but make every structure unreliable.

1-2: Nothing; you need to use natural features to moor your boat, drag it onto the beach, or anchor the boat and go ashore on a skiff
3-4: A small jetty for mooring fishing boats etc. Possibly with boat-building nearby. Could be owned by one family if there’s no settlement.
5-6: A natural or artificial pier
7-8: A harbour with a small quay, suitable for small-medium merchant vessels
9-10: A harbour with a large wharf, multiple piers, etc.

The Weather

Roll 1d6:

1: Changeable (sunny, windy, stormy)
2: Always warm and clement
3: Windy with rough seas
4: Stormy with lighting and rough seas
5: Frequently raining and cloudy
6: Meteorological enclave (makes its own weather, separate from surroundings)

Terrain

1d12:

1: Hills
2: Forest
3: Mountains
4: Caldera
5: Lagoon (or Atoll)
6: Freshwater brook or lake
7: Plains, fertile
8: Plains, infertile/desert
9: Salt marsh
10: Mesa/tableland
11: Rocky spires
12: Glacier

5. Interesting Things

Here are some interesting things about the island (may be a bit of colour, may be adventure)

  1. The island is surrounded by things that colour the water (seaweed, algae, jellyfish). What is the consequence of sailing or swimming in these waters?
  2. The island has many tall thin rocks on its coast, which sing when the wind blows. What does the song do?
  3. The coast includes geometric (e.g. hexagonal) rock formations.
  4. The water is unusually clear, and there’s something on the bottom of the bay. What is it?
  5. The Veil is thin here (see Beyond the Veil).
  6. A network of caves penetrates the entire island. What made them? What uses them?
  7. Several lava tubes can be found on the island. What lives in them?
  8. Many tall trees connected by rope bridges.
  9. A plain with a thin, brittle crust. What’s underneath?
  10. A ship, about a mile inland. How did it get there? Is there anyone on board?

6. Interacting With Minor Locations

When the Major Locations have been fleshed out, the GM writes the Minor Locations. The party then interacts with these on the way to Major Locations. For a Saltbox there are a few good reasons why they would need to interact with the islands on the way:

  1. They have limited water or food to stay on the water.
  2. They’re forced to land in bad weather.
  3. Winds or currents send them off-course.

OK, that’s it for this one. Now we have to fill it with people or nonhumans or monsters… TTFN.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Beyond the Waves: Playbook Tweaks

So, the first rule of the Beyond the Waves campaign is to maximise the use of the existing materials in BtW/FA. This is a list of minor tweaks for the playbooks for re-interpreting in an Island adventures game.

Notes on Skills, etc.:

  • Suggest that most instances of Riding should be replaced with Sailing
  • Swimming may default to Athletics.

Notes on Woods:

  • There are a few references to “the woods” in the playbooks. The role of the woods is to be a mysterious place just outside civilisation where characters can explore and find interesting things. In general substitute “woods” for “another island” or “the shore” or somewhere else that fits the maritime theme better.

Notes on the Core Playbooks

  • Self-Taught Mage: this character meets “a real sorcerer” from the South. What island do they come from, and what faction do they belong to?
  • Untested Thief: the character’s mentor may be a traveller from another island who was passing through. The farm they may have cheated someone out of could be an uninhabited island.
  • Witch’s Prentice: Stick the Witch’s Hut on a separate islet, maybe connected by a rope bridge
  • Would be Knight: The class skill of Riding may be less useful. Could substitute Sailing; alternatively keep Riding skill as an archaic skill from mainland culture.
  • Young Woodsman: Less woods, more sea. Replace instances of “wilderness” with “sea”, and skills like “tanning” and “hunting” with something more appropriate to marine life. If the character patrols the roads away from the settlement, make them a sailor, or maybe even a lighthouse keeper. Rather than them finding something in the woods, stick their cache on a nearby islet that’s difficult to land on and generally unexplored (maybe the rope bridge has rotted away).

Notes on The Villagers

  • Assistant Beast-Keeper: See the Witch’s Prentice above for the location of her cottage. Also, if they witnessed something relocate that scene from the Woods to the Shore and change accordingly (e.g. change the “horned rider” to someone mysterious sailing by on a small boat)
  • Devout Acolyte: References to burial mounds, abandoned sanctuaries, etc. could take place on nearby islands. Brigands could be pirates.
  • Fae Foundling: Rather than being found near the woods under a standing stone, perhaps this character was found in a cave near the shore at low tide.
  • Local Performer: The source of the Local Performer’s stories may well be travellers from other islands.

Notes on Dwarves, Elves and Halflings:

  • These demi-humans may come from more distant island nations, or even from the Land or from the other side of the Ocean (with no way to return to their homeland).
  • Dwarves are stereotypically miners, mechanically inclined, etc. There are probably remote islands that can be mined for minerals. Their boats will probably be uncommonly strong and functional, maybe inscribed with runes.
  • Elves are stereotypically tree-dwellers. Their homelands are probably forested. Their vessels could be slender longboats, maybe woven rather than constructed.
  • Dwarven Adventurer and Rune-Caster should probably remove references to fear of water
  • Halfling Outrider’s pony will probably be limited. Consider a dingy (perhaps it’s a magical, semi-aware boat) or maybe a porpoise (no good as a mount, but it always shows up when the character is on the water).
  • Halfling Vagabond passes through a lot of places — substitute “island” for “town”

Notes on The Nobility:

  • Perhaps the court is located on a larger, central island that is a hub for island commerce.
  • If the characters are a mix of nobles and villagers they still need to start off in close proximity to one another — consider the more rural outlying areas to be either coastal (for a large island) or separate islets, linked by bridges, rope ferries, etc.
  • Future Warlord: The barbarian horde should be seafaring, obviously.
  • Gifted Dilletante: This character tends to go out hunting on their estate. Consider making them more of a sailing type. For the various things they’ve collected over the years, consider their connection to travellers passing through.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Beyond the Waves: An Introduction

This is a brief series of posts on how you might re-imagine a Beyond the Wall game in an archipelago, with the characters’ starting village on one fairly central island (or small island cluster).

I’m considering both Beyond the Wall and Further Afield for constructing this “saltbox”. Changes should be minimal — I only want to add the extra rules that I feel are needed for this kind of game. No change to the core activity. Minimal changes to playbooks (I don’t really have time to redesign a set of playbooks anyway). I have some ideas for maritime combat but rules already exist for such in LotFP and (I believe) Labyrinth Lord, so maybe just use those. Also I will import some rules from my Death Comes To Wyverley hack.

At the end I’ll probably tidy this into a pdf or something. For now, hope you like it and please comment, if you like.

Characters

The aim is to re-skin the playbooks with minimal fuss. A few basic (and obvious) things:

  • Riding skills will be devalued in favour of Sailing; that will change the Would-Be Knight among others
  • Navigation, Sailing, Swimming all become important
  • Where NPCs are mentioned in playbooks, consider sticking them on their own little island (or sandbank, spit, etc.). The Witch’s Hut lies on the Witch’s Island, right? Or maybe it crosses shallow waters on stilts.

Islands

There will be a random island tool that accounts for island features including

  • Size (how long it takes to cross)
  • Natural Features
  • Weather
  • Signs of habitation
  • Safety slider (this affects encounters both on the island and in the waters around)
  • Also consider “virtual islands” i.e. floating communities of travellers, pirates, etc. plus areas of sea that are significant.

If the whole “saltbox” is the “wilderness”, individual islands will be the “dungeon” or “adventure” (in the manner of Zelda: Windwaker).

Crossing Water

Crossing water can be done by bridge, rope ferry, small boats, large boats, by sailing or rowing, etc. Some rules for size of boats, how they can respond to storms, navigate (and go off course), and deal with damage (bail out!).

Water itself may be safe or dangerous, depending on the proximity to different islands.

Ocean, Land and Big Fish

The Ocean is the open water that no-one has been able to cross and return. It represents either a greater boundary to the whole sandbox (it’s too big for the island craft to cross; it’s full of dangerous storms and giant creatures; possibly there were once Ships of Legend that took settlers here from across the Ocean) or something at the very edge of the Archipelago, like the edge of the world itself. There could even be a world beneath the Ocean (the Hyrule of Zelda:WW, or Rebma in the Chronicles of Amber).

The Land can be a vast unbroken land mass near the Archipelago. Unlike the other features this one should be optional (no such Land appears in Earthsea). There must be a reason that the folk of the Archipelago are not part of the Land. Wild and dangerous, weird and spooky, home to a decaying Empire from whom the denizens of the Archipelago have fled generations ago, etc.

The Ocean and the Land should represent Big Ideas in the world; the Ocean could symbolise an otherworld (whose “far shores” are the Elven homeland — or so the Elven PC says) and the Land a decadent, even hellish place.

Oh, and Big Fish: what does the Leviathan symbolise? Is it a threat or symbol of hope? What myths surround it?

Inspiration

These are some fiction things I like that inspired this re-skin:

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is already an influence on Beyond the Wall. It’s a “vast archipelago of hundreds of islands surrounded by mostly uncharted ocean” (wikipedia).

Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago and The Islanders are collections of short stories set in the titular Dream Archipelago (also featured in his novel The Affirmation). Although it’s not fantasy, it does give a strong sense of the variety of different cultures that run through the islands, and at the same time the common threads that bind the islanders together.

The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker on the Nintendo Gamecube (and later remastered in HD for the Wii U). Probably my favourite in the series, and for a 10 year old game it manages to not look dated thanks to the cel-shaded style. It involves travelling to different islands and doing the usual Zelda quests for the Triforce. Also Zelda is generally a nice example of how to re-skin the established tropes (dungeons, creatures, antagonists, format) to fit the premise.

Sinbad was a TV series on Sky in the UK; it lasted one season. Pretty rubbish acting and plotting but I quite liked the atmosphere, and the idea that Sinbad could only set foot on each island for one day and then had to return to sea was a nice premise. Filmed in Malta.

Worlds Apart is a reimagining of classic Traveller for islands instead of stellar maps.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Downloads

Beyond the Waves

This is a set of playbooks for Beyond the Waves, a Beyond the Wall setting on an archipelago.

All playbooks (PDF) Individual playbooks (zip file)

Death Comes to Wyverley

A Beyond the Wall supplement for playing games in Garth Nix’ Old Kingdom.

Death Comes To Wyverley (PDF)

Elric of R’lyeh

An alternate-Earth 1920s setting that combines the Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer rpgs from Chaosium

The Revised Elric of R’lyeh (PDF)

Fugue Hacking

The first published supplement for James Wallis’ Fugue system as used in the forthcoming game Alas Vegas.

Fugue Hacking (PDF)

Grunting by Jen Spencer

A free RPG by Jen Spencer.

Grunting

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

RPG First Look: Perdition vs. Crypts & Things

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The Black Hack may have all the OSR (and indie) cred right now, but I’ve just been reading two other 2016 OSR releases.

The first is Perdition from Hack and Slash publishing. It’s self-consciously a third wave OSR game:

It is a third wave clone because it is not a game designed to emulate or provide an improved version of the “Fantasy Adventure Role-Playing Game”. It is not a game designed to allow you to create your own fantasy realm and have whatever type of adventures you wish. It is a game designed to allow you to explore the world of Perdition. It crosses a line of setting books that work with whatever ruleset you are using and provides the setting information via mechanics, classes, equipment, spells and monsters, instead of through large blocks of flavour text and fiction writing.

I said before that the third wave of the OSR will be defined by those who claim it. I also said that these definitions will diverge; and Perdition is clearly diverging from earlier hand-waving claims of simply “innovation of setting”.

The other is Crypts and Things from D101 games, a very British “Sword and Sorcery RPG” with nods to White Dwarf and Fighting Fantasy, and with no elves or dwarves. Speaking of which the Encyclopaedia of SF has this to say about the genre:

Tolkien’s long, richly imagined work is as important to modern sword and sorcery as Howard’s, the two representing the two ends of the genre’s spectrum: Howard all amoral vigour, Tolkien all deeply moral clarity of imagination. (Also, Howard’s heroes were very big, Tolkien’s very small.) Common to both – although the two writers could not have had the remotest influence on each other – is a powerful commitment to the idea of worlds where magic works, and where heroism can be pitted against Evil.

C&T’s influences are Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Moorcock’s Elric, placing the game at the “amoral vigour” end of the spectrum. I always felt D&D was like that anyway, and perhaps that’s why the fantasy races felt so out of place in BECMI D&D. C&T’s core classes and focus on human cultures feel like a clean but necessary break.

(of course it’s not the only humanocentric Hyborian/Hyperborean S&S OSR game, and North Wind’s Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea was also a contender for my wallet — but getting the HC of either the 1st or 2nd ed. in Kickstarter would have been punitive to a non-US customer)

Reading through both books reveals interesting differences that point at fundamental design decisions, and I’m going to consider these in a bit. First, the lowdown on each book.

Perdition

Perdition is about playing in a world (Prime Material Plane) overrun by devils and demons. The latter are Chaotic and would tear creation asunder if it were not for the actions of the former who represent law and stability. They are at war and power their infernal war machine by corrupting human souls. The Vile Court oversees everything.

Perdition’s cover of a weirdly inverted city and a three-quarters view of a corpulent devil’s buttocks is by Matthew Adams, and will look familiar to fans of Yoon Suin. The other artists are Russ Nicholson, Heather Gwinn, Marcin S., and Michael Ralston. Nicholson’s art (a main attraction for me) is mainly found in the Monsters section detailing the major devils or lords. Interior book sections are graced by full-page illustrations, which are anything but traditional and have a spooky, dark fairytale and folk-art feel that would fit in with an occult anthropology book.

I love digest format books; but for once, I wonder if this one shouldn’t have been in a larger format. It’s a dense book and (as indicated by layout issues) there’s not a lot of white space.

(Actually there was some trouble with the PoD for Perdition, where page numbers, flags and some full plates were truncated (vertically and horizontally). This was fixed in my replacement copy (mostly) although the borders of some of Russ Nicholson’s full plates are slightly cut off)

Perdition divides up 326 pages roughly like this:

  • character generation including class, race and other bits (around 80 pages)
  • the usual miscellaneous rules for encumbrance, hirelings, languages, skills etc. (30 pages or so)
  • equipment (12 pages)
  • encounters (20 pages)
  • magic (90 pages)
  • monsters (40 pages)
  • finally GM’s section (“Agonarch”) that runs to the end (30 pages)

The contents page is great and the order is (mostly) logical. I had no trouble jumping to the sections I wanted to read. The book also provides a “Change Quick Reference List” on page 10 that tells us exactly where the system diverges from the SRD template. The authors know who their audience is.

Remarks

First, the Character Class and Magic sections — which are effectively player-facing — dominate the book with more than 50% of the page count. There are a lot of options for what you can play, and the game is the AD&D race-plus-class style with over 80 combinations (if you have the right stats). The classes are thoughtfully arranged into four groups based on Tarot suits (although I can’t see much Tarot symbolism elsewhere, but maybe I’m being thick) and the way you like your characters to get things done — fighting, skills, social and magical.

The magic section is extensive and that’s partly because there are many branches, some of which are specifically for certain classes. This means if you want to cast magic you’ve got to absorb both the class options and the magic section to make your decision on what to play. I like the way magic is handled with all the different schools, the Minor/Major/Grand distinctions (as opposed to levels) and the spell surges and so forth. But it’s a significant undertaking for starting players (and taxing if you’ve only got one book between you).

The monsters are the next largest section (and note that there are several fiends in the Summoning and Druidic magic sections also) and the Devil Lords get Russ Nicholson’s lovely art. If the goal is to communicate the setting through rules then I guess class, magic and monsters should be the dominant sections.

But actually the part of the rules I expect the whole game to revolve around is relatively short. The section on dealing with Devils and Demons (including summons, contracts and communication via the Vile Court) is appended to the general rules for equipment and skills and is maybe around 10-12 pages long. This sub-system together with some comments on the Wickedness stat in the Agonarch’s section is possibly the most important in the whole book. That I feel is the game’s real USP.

What else? Experience is treated as Prestige, an in-game currency that is used to claim levels, and also pay for petitions via the Vile Court (an idea I love, as it’s something I have in mind for Black Mantle). There’s a bit on Titan-sized monsters which can be both antagonists and locations (as in Shadow of the Colossus, island fish, etc.). There’s social and mental conflict (and hit points & armour class). The Encounter process causes PCs to suffer stress with successive encounters.

In summary, a lot to like, but also a lot to digest. I expect most OSR games to be nicely modular with a simple core — and Perdition is probably the same, but it’s different enough that you need to absorb it properly — it’s medium rather than low crunch and demands investment to play.

Crypts & Things

Crypts & Things is much more mainstream in terms of fantasy, though as said above it’s at the Howard and Leiber end of low fantasy as opposed to Tolkien’s high fantasy and great clomping feet. Comparisons with Conan and Hyboria (or Hyperborea) are inevitable — a ruined world besieged by “Others” via a mountaintop gate, pre-human civilisations, and a Barbarian character class.

I thought publishers steered clear of green book covers (when I was putting this image together for Fictoplasm it was a real struggle not to make the image as single wall of blue). Whether that’s true or not the lambent green cover is all you need to tell you that everyone on Zarth is fucked like a chronic case of Martian syphilis. Singing maggots aside it’s a very pretty cover (by David Michael Wright, who also did the interior art) with a male barbarian and female sorcerer squaring off against horned undead, a huge snake and a skull shaped portal in the background. The interior B&W art is consistent and sharp and on the whole very nice if a little safe with a procession of PC in a pose, snake person, ziggurat, snake person, temple, PC in a pose again. The best art (IMHO) is in the monster section (the place where it’s needed most).

The book is your traditional, large format and 2-column layout, plenty of white space. Hardly exciting by modern standards, but — and this is a big plus for me — printer friendly. The content is broken down into books — the Scrolls of Wonder (Player’s Guide) and the Book of Doom (for the GM). The former runs to just over 100 pages:

  • Creating a character, character classes and Life Events (approx. 40 pages)
  • Spell lists (20 pages)
  • How to play (20 pages)
  • The Continent of Terror (5 pages)
  • What the Elder told me (10 pages)

Then the Book of Doom’s approx 130 pages is divided like this:

  • The Secrets of the Continent (15 pages)
  • The Others (8 pages)
  • Antagonists including Snake People (4 pages) other bad guys (5 pages) and a bestiary (60 pages)
  • Treasure (5 pages), Adventures (20 pages) and author’s notes on play (10 pages)

The contents page is brief, the index longer but it’s all functional — I certainly wouldn’t have any trouble finding the section I needed.

Remarks

Let’s say retro-clones diverge in two directions: either greater diversity and choice, mixing and matching racial and class options (the AD&D way) or a reduction in the number of options (the Basic D&D way). Perdition is a great example of the former, while C&T does the latter.

Reducing options means reducing the number of decisions players have to make before kick-off. With four core classes and one homogeneous magic system C&T has a much lower cognitive overhead than Perdition. In fact C&T has an immediacy to it — thanks to the life-paths, the gazeteer and the “What the Elder Told Me” section (eight sets of culturally-biased answers to common questions like “who are we?” and “what is magic?”) I expect it would be quick to get up and running — which matters to me as I’m most likely to run OSR games as casual one-shots.

Downsides? C&T is a bit cartoonish; the classes are templates to be filled in, as is the landscape. That’s not a downside for me — I like my games painted with a broad brush and I don’t care for overly detailed settings. I feel C&T hits a sweet spot with just enough of a sketch to make the world a jumping off point rather than a straightjacket.

What else do I like? I like Skill and I like Luck. I also like the one kind of Sorcerer (as opposed to MU and Cleric) and three colours of magic, each with their own costs. Although based on earlier reviews (e.g. here and here) I had certain expectations and there have clearly been a few changes in the “remastering”. It seems previously White magic cost nothing, Grey cost HP and Black cost Sanity. Now White attracts “Others”, Black gains you Corruption and Grey has no cost.

Let’s talk briefly about Corruption and Sanity. I honestly can’t see the value of having both and in general I can’t see the point of CoC-style Sanity in a fantasy game — it made no sense when it was tacked onto Stormbringer and it’s not a great choice here. Corruption, now that makes sense. If only there had been more than one page devoted to it. The rules seem punitive; if it really goes up for every spell level cast then a 5th level sorcerer could see a bump of 9 points in a day’s adventuring. The rules for other classes being corrupted are hand-waving, as are the ones for reducing. The real problem is this isn’t a currency the players can manage except by not going near Black magic in the first place. A fair strategy and maybe the designer’s intent, but boring.

Final Words

Crypts & Things is formulaic, safe, evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I’d call that a strength, because the people I play with are only likely to engage with OSR games on a casual basis. The game has just enough flavour. It could be my go-to system for clearing up those LotFP modules cluttering my hard drive.

Perdition is uncompromising, detailed and unique. I don’t think I’d get the time to play it to the depth it deserves. But even so, I’m very glad I read it because it’s remarkable both in concept and execution.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Death Comes To Wyverley: Walking Through Death

This is part of a series of pieces for Death Comes To Wyverley, a playset for Beyond the Wall inspired by Garth Nix’ Old Kingdom series. This should be considered a fan work.

DctW

This is the follow-on piece to the alternative damage and healing rules — something I started to lay down following this discussion.

Dying

Originally I was going to represent different stages of Death by negative HP, but that doesn’t work so well with scaling, or with the implication of negative HP. What does being at negative HP mean? Usually the PC is “incapacitated” so they don’t really participate in the game other that wait to die.

I don’t want my players to wait to die — I want them to either be In Life or In Death. So, 0 HP is the threshold between Life and Death (“Death’s Door”). If a PC arrives at or goes below 0 HP, they make a save against Death (= Poison) or their spirit gets swept into the First Precinct. The saving throw is modified thus:

  • if the last damage the PC took would have taken them to negative HP, that number is applied as a penalty
  • if the PC has any major wounds, subtract 2 from the worst wound and apply the number as a penalty (cumulative with above)

While the spirit is in the First Precinct they can be brought back by strong healing. However the spirit won’t hang around there for long — and once beyond the First Gate, no healing can save them; the Abhorsen or a Necromancer must venture Into Death to pull them back into life.

Death

In the Abhorsen trilogy, Death is a series of Precincts separated by Gates. Although the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre are on two different planes of existence it seems Death connects both (as both Sameth and Hedge enter Death south of The Wall). Possibly Death is easier to reach when the North Wind blows.

Falling or Walking Into Death

Newly dead souls get disoriented when they’re swept into Death, and may find themselves in any Precinct.

  • every round the new soul rolls an unmodified save vs Death. If they pass they get to stay in the First Precinct, otherwise they will pass through the First Gate.
  • if the soul makes 3 checks in a row they are no longer disoriented and can resist the pull of the First Gate (but they’re still dead).
  • If they get swept past the First Gate they get to continue making checks in the Second and subsequent Precincts. Fails mean they get swept through the next Gate, success means they stay, and with 2 saves in succession they regain their senses and can choose to remain in that Precinct.

An Abhorsen or a Necromancer can just walk into Death and keep their wits. When they do this, rime frost may form on their body and clothes in Life, and their body is potentially vulnerable.

Environmental Hazards

Once in Death the Precincts and Gates are negotiated like other physical obstacles. The Gates and Precincts are well described on this page, so I won’t reiterate them here.

Negotiating the various waves, sinkholes, whirlpools and flares is at the GM’s discretion, but in general if a character fails a check they are at risk of being swept away, and should make a save against Death or become disoriented. A second save (should the first be failed) or help from another is required to avoid stumbling into the next Gate.

The Dead

The Dead are an obvious threat in any Precinct, and the deeper down one goes the more powerful the Dead are. Combat should be handled just as in Life, and the noncorporeal body will have the same hit points, etc.

The types of dead encountered will generally be:

  • degenerate souls which have taken on different forms (features of insect, worm, etc.) with only animal intelligence
  • human souls retaining intelligence and memory, who may speak (assuming they’re not immediately violent)
  • powerful dead like the Fifth Gate Resters

Death as a Dungeon?

In theory Death could be developed into a dungeon, however there’s not a lot of value unless the whole party is able to venture into Death — for now the loose descriptions of the Precincts and Gates will be enough.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Elric of R’lyeh: History and Legend

  1. Myth
  2. Subverting History
  3. Timeline of the Common Era

In this portion of the game notes, we’ll discuss history and myth.

Myth

It was as if some enormous sun, thousands of times larger than Earth’s, had sent a ray of light pulsing through the cosmos, defying the flimsy barriers of Time and Space, to strike upon the great black battlefield.
Stormbringer

When Elric blew the Horn of Fate, a rent in time and space allowed the Gods of Law to pass into our world and do battle with Chaos. Eventually the power of the Horn swept all gods away and ushered in a new age and new world.

At least, that’s how the common version of the myth goes. As Moorcock fans we’re familiar with the events in Stormbringer up to the point of Elric’s final toot of the horn (and subsequent betrayal by the eponymous sword) and it’s generally assumed that the world that follows is both geographically and metaphysically altered into our own world.

The alternate earth of Elric of R’lyeh exists after that cataclysm; the Elric myth is broadly aligned with the events of Stormbringer, but it is still a myth. The cataclysmic event at the beginning of the Common Era is the beginning of known history, and the time before is speculation — and the Elric myth is probably a rendering down of a complex series of events to make it palatable to modern citizens.

But, let’s consider what could have happened.

Firstly, the Horn of Fate is a macguffin. It could be a metaphor for vast cosmic change, or it could be a coincidental detail that has been blown out of proportion. What if the sound of the horn was the “thin, monotonous whine of blasphemous flutes from inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond Time” (H. P. Lovecraft, Nyarlathotep) and Elric’s true purpose was to summon Nyarlathotep to usher in a new age?

Another idea: what if the Horn of Fate were a weapon? Its intent was to usher in a new age, reset the balance and sweep the old gods away. When Elric sounded the Horn of Fate and conjured the gods, what if they came there not to do battle with Chaos, but — facing their own extinction — with the sorcerer himself?

“So it is over,” Moonglum murmured. “All gone — Elwher, my birthplace, Karlaak by the Weeping Waste, Bakshaan, even the Dreaming City and the Isle of Melnibone. They no longer exist, they cannot be retrieved.”
Stormbringer

And finally, when the Horn was sounded for a third and final time, did the Earth change, or did Elric’s perception of the Earth change? Did he truly witness the Earth whirling “faster and faster… day giving way to night with incredible rapidity” (Stormbringer) or did Dead Elric dream those changes after his final battle ground sank beneath the waves? Elric is popularly portrayed as mortal, yet he is also Melnibonean; he is both fantastically long-lived and powerful, and there is no-one in the Common Era who is truly Melnibonean, and thus his true power is likely beyond the estimation of modern scholars. That he lives still is a frightening possibility.

Ylrhc the sorcerer created a weapon that could challenge the gods themselves, and for his blasphemy they met him in his palace at R’lyeh to strike him down. He was defeated but not killed, for he did the gods terrible harm and weakened them such that even they could not end him. And so the gods consigned his R’lyeh to beneath the waves, along with his weapon, so men would never find him and understand that they had the power to challenge the gods.

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Ylrhc R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!

  • Unnamed heretical scroll, from the archives of the Vatican

Subverting History

There’s not a lot to say about mucking about with history. It falls down to two things: inserting historical figures into your game, and establishing a timeline.

Let’s talk about historical figures first. Melnibonean bloodlines present a lot of potential; in my campaign Queen Elizabeth was the last true Melnibonean, and the class structure was predelicted on Melnibonean blood and how many generations one was removed from Her Majesty. The greater the percentage of Melnibonean blood the longer lived the individual is, too. I’ll cover modern society and its obsession with bloodline and status in a later post.

With the potential for historical persons having a drop of Melnibonean blood in their veins, there are opportunities to insert any figure you care to from history into the 1920s. But, this is hardly new, since we were doing it in Vampire 20 years ago.

In fact, Melniboneans are a lot like Vampires in their scope to change history — they’re unusually long lived and usually powerful. The differences between a Melnibonean and a Vampire that matter are

  • they’re able to go out in the sunlight
  • they walk around in a society which obeys them rather than fearing them
  • they’re public figures.

History should be made by Melniboneans. Bear in mind that “Melnibonean” is a fluid concept and applies to members of rich families with strong Melnibonean bloodlines — but not exclusively alien. No-one in 1920’s earth is a “pure” Melnibonean, or has any concept of what that would look like — maybe with the exception of Queen Elizabeth.

Where it’s amusing to do so, pluck figures from history and give them Melnibonean blood. Pay attention to their relative ages. No-one is older than Elizabeth herself, but having NPCs who were born in the 1700s is plausible. In my own games I inserted Elias Ashmole and various contemporaries of Elizabeth. However I was mindful not to turn it into an alternative Vampire with the players as mere observers to the Elder’s machinations. This should still be an investigation game.

Timeline of the Common Era

This is a sample timeline. In this world the Dragon Isle and Melnibone are both synonymous with The British Isles, and Imyrr is synonymous with Oxford (city of dreaming spires and all that).

0-500 – age of Chaos.

Sinking of R’lyeh followed by a power vacuum. The Western Ocean is named the Boiling Sea and becomes impassable for the next 1500 years. Old Melnibonean feudal estates within Britain and on mainland Europe vie for power. End of the Bright Empire witnessed by Maximillian von Becque who founds the Church of Law. At the end of the Age the Church of Law is a significant power in central Europe.

500-1000 – age of the Construction.

Church of Law gradually permeates through civilisation, and challenges the Melnibonean estates. British Isles resist influence of Law and is widely held to be haunted by mainland Europe, inhabited by ancient sorcerer-kings and frightened tribes of humans. Capital of the Church of Law established at the ancient pre-collapse city of Byzantium.

1000-1500 – age of Enlightenment.

British Isles invaded by William who establishes his United Kingdom and begins the reconstruction of the largely superstitious and Chaos-aligned Britain. This is the Middle Age of Britain, during which time the Church of Law is fully established. At the same time the Court of Chaos is put in place to satisfy (the vanity of) the remaining Melnibonean estates on the island. The southern estates join the alliance of the Church of Law and the Court of Chaos under the British Monarch, though in the far north of Scalland the estates refuse to bow to the alliance and a bloody war ensues which is never fully resolved, only conceded. The Scalls continue to predominantly observe the cults of Chaos and become known as the Lands of a Thousand Cults.
At this time the old cities of Melnibone are rediscovered and William arbitrates on the rightful stewardship of the settlements. Oxford is one such city, and becomes a principle seat of learning. Towards the end of this period the collapse of the Byzantine Empire is imminent, to be replaced by the modern European structure.

1500-present – modern age; the Age of Empire; the Rediscovery of Melnibone.

The influence of Law spreads as cities prosper and the precepts of Law supplant the old allegiances to the cults of Chaos; however in rural areas local cult worship is common. Queen Elizabeth comes to the throne in Britain after a brutal war of succession following the death of her father, Henry. As it happens this profoundly influences the Balance between Law and Chaos throughout Europe. Had her sister Mary succeeded their father it is likely that Mary would have founded New Byzantium and a second Great Age of Law would have resulted; instead Elizabeth sought a balance between the Church of Law and the Courts of Chaos, and the latter was able to establish itself in the political landscape. This was the great Rennaissance of Chaos, with the rediscovery of the arcane sciences and a resurgence in magic. The British Empire — also known as the Second Bright Empire — is established during this time, and spreads throughout the modern world as far as the New World to the West, and Asiacommunista to the East.
The “Romance of Melnibone” is a phrase used for the romantic sensibilities of old Melnibone, the rediscovery of Melnibonean relics and knowledge and a reconnection with the spirit of Melnibone which Elizabeth sees as a continuation of the work of William’s Reconstruction. As part of the Rediscovery, the pioneers of the new Bright Empire travel west across the Boiling Sea and successfully land in the New World. Colonies of the Bright Empire are established there until the war of Independence, where the United States split from the Empire completely.

Recent History

Britain has recently fought a Great War with Germania and won; for the moment there is peace in Europa, though the cost has been very high. Russian revolution leads to the renaming of the Eastern continent as Asiacommunista. Church of Law establishes prohibition in the former Imperial Colonies who now refer to themselves as the United States — though the Empire calls them the Young Kingdoms.

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