Sunday, November 12, 2017

Alternate Mutations for MCC

The Mutant Crawl Classics core rules have tables for determining mutant appearance, manimal subtype, and plantient subtype. Each table takes a similar form, roll 1d30 to pick a category of mutation (skin color, skin texture, eyes, etc for mutant appearance; primate, canine, feline, etc for manimal subtype; deciduous, conifer, fruit-bearing, etc for plantient subtype) then roll again to choose a specific mutation from within that category.

There isn't necessarily a problem with any of these tables, but I do worry that there may be slightly too few specific options within each category, and that the categories for manimals and plantients leave some obvious choices out. (I also wonder about some of the mutant appearance charts. Is there a meaningful difference between hands that "are comprised of tentacles" and hands that are "absent, replaced with tentacle fingers?" What if someone's sole mutation is to have 2 arms or 2 legs, which is a serious possibility on the "Body" category subtable?)

Partly, this concern is practical. Tables with too few choices risks producing too many repeats, and because each MCC game begins with 4 characters per player, this risk is greater than in other games. (Reading the Random Esoteric Creature Generator and then reading Island of the Unknown shows what this risk looks like.) It doesn't matter if the mutants at one table look like the mutants at another, but it does matter if some of the supposedly unique mutants at one table look like others at the same table. (If mutants are supposed to belong to distinctive types, rather than being individuals, then this isn't a problem at all, but I think that the mutants are supposed to each be unique.)

The other part of my concern is creative. I don't claim to have imagined every type of mutation, but it seems there are some obvious possibilities left out. Many of the mutants depicted in the art of the book, for example, cannot be created following the tables, which seems like another missed opportunity.

In the future, I'll write my own tables, but for now, here are three alternative tables based on the mutations in the Crawling Under a Broken Moon zine and the Umerican Survival Guide. These tables provide categories of mutation without offering specific types within each category. One way to use these tables would be for the player and judge to decide together what the mutation looks like. Another way would be to follow up by rolling on the CUaBM or USG mutation tables, which provide chances for a number of possible abilities related to each category. One caveat here would be that these tables were originally written for a world where mutations are less common than in MCC.

The first table provides alternative mutant appearance results. The second provides alternative manimal subtypes. The third provides alternative plantient subtypes.



Mutant Appearance (roll 1d24)
  1-2    Extravore (digestive abnormality)
  3-6    Extra limbs
 7-10    Cranial abnormality
11-14    Dermal abnormality
15-18    Ocular abnormality
19-20    Aggregate features (roll 1d3, 1 granite, 2 iron, 3 crystalline)
21-22    Weaponized features (roll 1d6, 1 claws, 2 spines, 3 fangs, 4 horns, 5 club fist, 6 spikes)
   23    Roll 1d20 once on this table. The mutant has two mutations of this type.
   24    Roll 1d20 twice on this table.



Manimal Subtype (roll 1d20)
  1-2    Avian (bird-like)
  3-4    Bovid (cow-like)
  5-6    Canine (dog-like)
  7-8    Crustacean (crab-like)
 9-10    Feline (cat-like)
11-12    Piscine (fish-like)
13-14    Ambphibian (frog-like)
15-16    Reptilian (lizard-like)
17-18    Testudine (turtle-like)
   19    Roll 1d16 twice on this table.
   20    Roll 1d16 once on this table and 1d20 once on the Mutant Appearance table.



Plantient Subtype (roll 1d12)
 1-2    Tree-like
 3-4    Bush-like
 5-6    Vine-like
 7-8    Flower-like
9-10    Fungi-like
  11    Roll 1d10 twice on this table.
  12    Roll 1d10 once on this table and 1d20 once on the Mutant Appearance table.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Characters I Want to Play - Alternate Occupation Tables for MCC

The Mutant Crawl Classics core rules provides separate tables for starting occupations (hunter or gatherer) and character genotypes (pure-strain human, mutant, manimal, or plantient).

My first thought when I saw this was that there was no reason to separate these tables. One of the interesting things about Dungeon Crawl Classics' starting occupations table is that it determines both the character's race (human, dwarven, elven, or halfling) and their occupation with one roll.

My second thought was that I could use the occupation lists from DCC #79: Frozen in Time or from Mystic Bull Games' The Tribe of Ogg and the Gift of Suss to replace the minimalist occupation list in MCC proper.

Below are three tables providing alternate occupations and genotypes for MCC characters. The first table uses only the occupations originally found in the Mutant Crawl Classics rules. (In all three tables, I preserved the frequency of the original genotypes.)

01-16    Human hunter - wood spear (1d5)
17-32    Human gatherer - leather bag
33-49    Mutant hunter - wood spear (1d5)
50-66    Mutant gatherer - leather bag
67-77    Manimal hunter - wood spear (1d5)
78-88    Manimal gatherer - leather bag
89-94    Plantient hunter - wood spear (1d5)
95-00    Plantient gatherer - leather bag



The second tables uses the occupations found in Frozen in Time. The pure-strain humans have occupations that went to humans in the original table. Only pure-strain humans can start as lore-keeper's assistants, shaman's assistants, or as stargazers. The mutants have occupations that went to both humans and demihumans. The manimals and plantients have only those occupations that originally went to demihumans. Manimals are weighted more heavily toward dwarven and halfling occupations, while plantients are weighted more heavily toward elven occupations.

   01    Human artisan - club & clay pot of ochre paint
02-03    Human butcher - flint cleaver (as hand axe) & side of mammoth meat
04-05    Human brewer - club & skin of beer
   06    Human canoe-maker - dagger & canoe
07-08    Human cord-maker - knife (as dagger) & hide cordage, 50'
   09    Human fire-bearer - spear & clay pot of embers
10-11    Human fisherman - harpoon (as javelin) & flint fishhooks, 12
12-14    Human gatherer - knife (as dagger) & basket of vegetables
   15    Human healer - club & bone needle and sinew thread
   16    Human herbalist - club & herbs, 1 lb
17-19    Human hunter - spear & animal pelt
   20    Human lore-keeper's assistant - club & divination bones
21-22    Human orphan - club & weird trinket from former tribe
23-24    Human potter - club & clay, 1 lb
   25    Human shaman's assistant - club & herbs, 1 lb
26-27    Human slave - club & strange-looking rock
   28    Human stargazer - spear & piece of meteorite iron
29-30    Human tanner - dagger & hide armor
31-32    Human weaver - dagger & fabric, 3 yards
   33    Mutant artisan - club & clay pot of ochre paint
34-35    Mutant butcher - flint cleaver (as hand axe) & side of mammoth meat
36-37    Mutant brewer - club & skin of beer
38-39    Mutant canoe-maker - dagger & canoe
40-41    Mutant cord-maker - knife (as dagger) & hide cordage, 50'
   42    Mutant flintknapper - flint hand axe & flint, 1 lb
   43    Mutant herder - staff & elk calf
   44    Mutant fletcher - short bow & flint arrowheads, 20
   45    Mutant scout - spear & piece of signaling quartz
   46    Mutant fire-bearer - spear & clay pot of embers
47-48    Mutant fisherman - harpoon (as javelin) & flint fishhooks, 12
49-50    Mutant gatherer - knife (as dagger) & basket of vegetables
   51    Mutant animal trainer - club & wolf pup
   52    Mutant fowler - sling & feathered cape
   53    Mutant healer - club & bone needle and sinew thread
   54    Mutant herbalist - club & herbs, 1 lb
55-56    Mutant hunter - spear & animal pelt
57-58    Mutant orphan - club & weird trinket from former tribe
59-60    Mutant potter - club & clay, 1 lb
61-62    Mutant slave - club & strange looking rock
63-64    Mutant tanner - dagger & hide armor
65-66    Mutant weaver - dagger & fabric, 3 yards
67-71    Manimal flintknapper - flint hand axe & flint, 1 lb
72-76    Manimal herder - staff & elk calf
75-76    Manimal fletcher - short bow & flint arrowheads, 20
77-78    Manimal scout - spear & piece of signaling quartz
79-83    Manimal animal trainer - club & wolf pup
84-88    Manimal fowler - sling & feathered cape
   89    Plantient flintknapper - flint hand axe & flint, 1 lb
   90    Plantient herder - staff & elk calf
91-94    Plantient fletcher - short bow & flint arrowheads, 20
95-98    Plantient scout - spear & piece of signaling quartz
   99    Plantient animal trainer - club & wolf pup
   00    Plantient fowler - sling & feathered cape



The third and final table uses the occupations found in The Tribe of Ogg. The role of shaman's apprentice is again reserved for pure-strain humans. There were no occupations specific to the demihuman ooloi in this adventure, so as in the first table, all genotypes draw on the same list of occupations.

01-04    Human fisher - spear & string of fish
05-08    Human flint knapper - flint axe & 1d5 stone daggers
09-16    Human gatherer - stone dagger & leather bag
17-26    Human hunter - spear & hunk of dried meat
27-28    Human shaman's assistant - club & fetish object
29-32    Human tanner - club & 1d3 tanned hides
33-36    Mutant fisher - spear & string of fish
37-40    Mutant flint knapper - flint axe & 1d5 stone daggers
41-51    Mutant gatherer - stone dagger & leather bag
52-62    Mutant hunter - spear & hunk of dried meat
63-66    Mutant tanner - club & 1d3 tanned hides
67-69    Manimal fisher - spear & string of fish
70-72    Manimal flint knapper - flint axe & 1d5 stone daggers
73-78    Manimal gatherer - stone dagger & leather bag
79-85    Manimal hunter - spear & hunk of dried meat
86-88    Manimal tanner - club & 1d3 tanned hides
89-90    Plantient fisher - spear & string of fish
91-92    Plantient flint knapper - flint axe & 1d5 stone daggers
93-95    Plantient gatherer - stone dagger & leather bag
96-98    Plantient hunter - spear & hunk of dried meat
99-00    Plantient tanner - club & 1d3 tanned hides


 
At some point I might try my hand at writing my own alternate occupations table, possibly with slightly modified genotype ratios - but for now I just wanted to make something to facilitate picking occupation and genotype in a single roll, and something that utilizes the two already-existing stone-age occupation tables from DCC.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Campaigns I Want to Run - Dungeons & Decorators

I have no immediate plans to run it, but I rather like the idea of a campaign where the characters are not particularly out to find ordinary, interchangeable gold, but where, instead, they are aesthetes out to find unique biological specimens and objets d'art to wear to parties, stock cabinets of curiosity, and fill their homes with the rarest and most valuable items they can find.
 
I suppose part of this desire is me wanting to translate the only kind of treasure hunting I actually do - shopping at thrift stores an used book stores - into the goals of a game that is all about treasure hunting, albeit normally of a more mundane and monetary variety.

Part of it is my desire to imagine pretty things, and then imagine finding and collecting those pretty things. And part of it, if I'm being honest, is something like jealousy or wanting to be her when I see news profiles devoted to people who actual lives seem to consist mostly of finding and displaying pretty things to audiences of their friends.

Collectors like Hollister, left, and Porter Hovey, sisters with an appetite for late 19th-century relics like apothecary cabinets and dressmakers’ dummies, are turning their homes into pastiches of the past.
Credit: Michael Weschler for The New York Times

Awhile ago, the Grey Lady had an article about a pair of sisters who collect antiquities.

And of course there was an accompanying slideshow.

The aesthetic here is something I absolutely love, which makes it all the more tempting as a source of inspiration. Some people want their games to feel like a heavy metal album cover; I want mine to feel like a Wes Anderson movie. At some point, I want to run a campaign where the characters wear suits and dresses and "borrowed" military uniforms, where they fight with fencing swords and dueling pistols, and where they gain experience for collecting unique treasures and displaying them to the public. For a campaign like that, you need rumors about treasures to be found, inventories not just for the characters but for their display cases and show houses as well, rules adjudicating the XP attached to monetarily invaluable objects, and additional incentives to show off - NPC rivals seeking to outdo the aesthetes, rules for spellcasting that demand each spell be attuned to a unique object.

Dungeon of Signs has had a couple ideas that work well in this vein. He has a great list of starting equipment for bored aristos gone dungeoneering on a lark, plus a list of possible babysitters retainers for them, upscale carousing results, advice on XP for finding curios and trophies rather than XP for gold, and not one but two examples of this kind of play.

His other really good idea comes from a post about starting magic items for aristocratic heirs. In addition to being a really good list, one that's easy to combine with the other aristocratic starting equipment, there's a great suggestion for these heirs to simply be robbing their own houses, exploring the Ghormanghast-ian depths of their familial estates, and recovering treasures that their own ancestors lost to time and neglect. As someone who has spent a fair bit of time helping her mother clean out her attic, I can't tell you how interesting I think it would be if such an attic were truly enormous, and if the items found there were magic and beautiful and valuable.

From Dungeon of Signs: "Your house has fallen, not once, not even twice, but like a tottering drunk, tumbling endlessly, colliding with fixed obstacles, cowering from imagined enemies and unprepared to face tomorrow. Why do you alone see it? Your elders, the family head, the old retainers, the children, and even your peers are blind, wrapped up in false glories and an imagined past. While they sit in dark worm eaten parlors, clutching the greasy and threadbare arms of their patched tapestried thrones and waiting for the Empire’s return to fortune, you have calmly laid out the need for change. Over meals of what were once decorative carp but are now your rubbery repast carved up on golden plates, you have shouted and raved for action. In the mossy dripping blackness of the overgrown topiary garden you’ve intrigued and schemed."
 
"Your efforts have come to naught, your warnings, your rumor mongering, your pleas and prayers cannot move the fixed inertia of a Millennium's propriety and tradition. Now there is only flight, clutching poorly prepared supplies and rushing for the unknown world beyond the mansions and spires."





The other option, of course, is not to play a campaign where you steal from your own dead family members to pad out your own estate, but where you play a slightly more conventional campaign where you are robbing other dead families to pad out the estates of today's aristocracy - which does not include you, in this campaign, you're not the elite, you're just their interior decorators.

Fernando Sanchez scours a shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a Venezuelan client’s terra-cotta wall.
Credit: Justin Mott for The New York Times

And of course there's an old New York Times article about that as well.

It has a slideshow too, naturally.

The emphasis here is less on finding one-of-a-kind objects as it is on finding relatively rare building materials in large enough quantities to actually build with them. Tearing up old roads for paving stones for a private driveway, pulling the roofs off old buildings to use as kitchen backsplash tiles, tearing down a millennia-old religious school for the stones to build a garage, extinct animal skins become bathroom wallpaper - these are real examples, and the point is that no "abandoned" building is too sacred, no modern purpose too profane for this kind of treasure hunting. The collectors who hire these kinds of decorators seem to me to take some kind of perverse pleasure in acquiring the most natively important materials and using them in the most trivial ways.

Coins and Scrolls has a couple posts about campaigning in this vein. First he writes about the general prospect of ripping apart a dungeon and carting it off as building material, and then he has a more specific example of disassembling the Castle of Elemental Evil and using the components to build a new fortress.

As is generally true of a game about committing muggings and burglaries - with a side of killing endangered animals and destroying the archaeological record - behavior that I find reprehensible in real life seems like it would make for pretty good campaign fodder. I've already been thinking about how to use rare building materials as a kind of go-to treasure for the architecturally-obsessed Bo-al in my on-again-off-again Island of the Blue Giants campaign.

Reclaimed shutters recline in a Chiang Mai warehouse.
Credit: Justin Mott for The New York Times

A more recent Times article claims to discuss the current fad of tomb-robbing for building materials in China.

As before, the real world details here are just fascinating. Due to China's long history, the country is littered with old tombs. Nearly every estate and plot of land has one, sometimes more than one. Farmers used to consider it a familial duty to guard them, but the destruction of tradition during decades of revolution and re-revolution also destroyed that sense of obligation. Now tombs are a ready supply of dressed stone and other materials. And the high prevalence of art forgery has given rise to a class of wary investors who only want to purchase recently pillaged artifacts to ensure their authenticity and provenance. Meanwhile, the government has stepped up the surveillance of old tombs, the rewards for turning in robbers, and the penalties for robbing.

Again, that's practically a campaign right there.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Terrible Perils of Joining the Whig Party in Scarabae

I played in another online game set in the weird city of Scarabae around a month ago. Here's a link to the referee's session report on Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque.

Since her last adventure - which had resulting in helping out the career of a hated artistic rival (aka Yvanna Gallows, aka really any artist who was still working in the arts rather than being forcibly retired due to illness) - Traviata had shut herself up in her apartment where she could hide from her rival's citywide popularity (and indulge in a bit of hate-listening to the recovered record without anyone else knowing her dirty secret.)

Eventually, Traviata used her downtime to get back in touch with Akiko, the water genasi nurse she'd helped rescue from a contaminated medical clinic. She asked Akiko to amputate the leg that had been scarred by a burrowing parasite, and fit her with the wooden prosthetic she'd taken from the clinic. Akiko was shocked, but performed the surgery gratis as repayment for Traviata's help saving her life.

(I think I managed to surprise the referee, Jack, with this request.)

When Traviata did emerge from her home to go back into the city, she found her neighborhood, the Redgutter, surprisingly quiet and empty. Ordinarily it was abustle with activity at all hours of the day and night. Instead the streets were silent and deserted. Checking her mail, Traviata found an invitation from the tiefling job broker Koska, asking her to attend a meeting of a number of local business owners.

When Traviata arrived, she met Khajj Kahla (a minotaur cleric she'd met once before on a job clearing out a haunted apartment), Gisbert Highforge (a dwarven fighter), and Crumb (a fellow artificer, a kenku who focused on gunsmithing rather than alchemy.) Koska's assembled "chamber of commerce" included Voone Jaskar (the tortle pawnshop owner and go-to fencer of stolen goods) and Wick (a fire genasi who owned the most popular adventuring bar, the Bull Roarer.) All three told a similar story to the gathered adventurers - everyone was missing, no one was left. Jobs were going unfilled with no one to take them, there was no supply of "recovered" artifacts to sell on to Scarabae's legitimate collectors, no one was showing up to share drinks and tall tales of their mighty deeds.

(I don't know if Jack intended it, but this mood eerily matched the feel at the time of one online community for roleplayers that he and I both frequent. There were some very public, very unpleasant arguments between members of the community that led to several of them leaving the public space in the week or so before this gaming session. At that time, there was definitely a feeling that people were disappearing, and the community felt unusually quiet and empty.)
 
(Koska's situation also matches every referee's worst fear - there are adventures to play, and you're ready to play them, but there are no players to be found, and for a moment at least, it seems like there will never be any players ever again. Again, at the time, this felt like a possible near future for the community.)

Koska swore to her innocence - this wasn't her fault, she wasn't sending everyone off to their deaths underground. Voone Jaskar reported that the last time he'd seen any adventurers selling loot, it was a lone thief trying to hock a box full of white powdered wigs. Wick claimed that after days without customers, she had a single visitor, an out-of-towner elven wizard who insisted he felt a malign otherworldly presence, and who left after a single drink, refusing to stay in a neighborhood he said was cursed.

Wracking their brains for potential contacts they could go to for information, the group decided to pay a visit to Aurulent Masque, a semi-retired drow warlock. She was an ex- (well, mostly ex-) adventurer herself, a hostess of semi-regular salons, and a known mentor and advisor to young adventurers. When they knocked, the found Aurulent all dressed up in her signature yellow gown and gold jewelry, and the poor woman nearly burst into tears at the sight of them. No one had come to see her for weeks! She's been so lonely, and she thought it was somehow her fault no one was coming to see her anymore! Traviata, Khajj, Gisbert, and Crumb were quickly hustled inside Aurulent's house and shown to her her salon, another room all decorated in shades of yellow, perfectly contrasting with Madam Masque's dark drow skin. Aurulent brought out her best detection spells for the occasion, finding the presence, determining that it was alien or even extra-dimensional, and localizing it to the old docks, a section of abandoned wharf and warehouses that was turf to a gang of ratfolk yakuza who styled themselves "the 47 Rodents." The group was glad for the information, but not quite sure how the rats could possibly be responsible for their current situation.

Together with Aurulent, the group walked to Wick's bar, talking loudly all the way about how they had a HUGE advance payment from Koska, how they planned to get BLACKOUT drunk, how they were HEEDLESS of any risk of danger. Their plan - to attract whatever was causing people to disappear - seemed to work. Khajj and Crumb both noticed they were being followed, and when the group got to the bar, they spotted their surveillance - a glassy-eyed halfling wearing a giant white powdered wig, pressing his face against the bar window to watch them. While the others held the spy's attention, Crumb snuck outside, disguised himself with magic, and walked right past the peeping halfling, at the very last moment, snatching the wig to pull it right off his head. He couldn't though, because the wig was clinging to the halfling's head with crab pincers, and the wig, not the halfling, was screaming!

(It's probably good that Crumb was the first person to interact with the wig creatures. Traviata might have just killed the spy if he wouldn't answer her questions, and I think certainly would have put on the wig to use as a disguise to try to infiltrate the 47 Rodents' hideout. Which, as we quickly learned, would have been a HUGE mistake on her part. Fortunately, thanks to Crumb, she never had the chance to make it.)

A brief combat followed, Gisbert defended his friends with his shield, Traviata blasted the wig off the poor man's head, and after a lot of screaming, the creature died. Back inside the bar, they questioned the halfling, who seemed not to have bathed for days. He said he and his friends were at their hideout after a successful burglary adventure, when they got a knock on the door, and found a hand-delivered crate full of white-powdered wigs. They thought it would be funny to try them on, and did, and he doesn't remember anything at all after that. Meanwhile Khajj dissected the monster and saw that it was an crablike alien crustacean growing long white hair from it's hindquarters, and the hair had been styled and coiffed to create the appearance of a wig.

(The appearance of these creatures kind of reminds me of the minogame, mythic Japanese turtles who live a long time, are very wise, and have a luxurious mane of hair growing from the rear of their shells. I absolutely love the idea that you could have a creature that looks like that, then grow its hair out and style it, so that most of the time, it just looks like a giant human hairdo, while still remaining a basically naturalistic creature underneath.)


Khajj cut the hair off the monster, and Traviata used skills she picked up in the opera to refashion the hair back into a wig to disguise the halfling Zillan as though he were still possessed. Aurulent took the body of the creature back to her house to study further. Zillan led the way back to his house, which was empty with no sign of his friends. The group did find the box the wigs came in though - an old tea crate with a return address at the abandoned docks. They traveled to the docks (presumably into the 47 Rodents' territory?) and located the address - a collapsed building. Inside they located the shipping office, where they found a hole in the floor. All the papers in the office related to the tea trade and dated back to when the company was still in business, offering no leads on the current problem. With the building dead silent, it seemed that any answers were going to be found beneath the surface. Khajj led the way down the hole into the underground.

(I had initially been imagining these docks being abandoned for 5-10 years. Jack shocked me when he said everything in the office was over 100 years old. It really changes my view of Scarabae to think that parts of it might have been abandoned, not for decades, but for centuries.)

Down the hole, the party found a circular chamber, with a giant pool of water blocking passage to the passageway visible on the far side. They also found a raft sitting on the still, dust-coated water, and a crack in the wall behind them. Suspecting that a raft-ride across to the other side was a sure chance for ambush, the party sent Traviata - wearing her new cap of water breathing - under the surface to investigate. Sure enough, she spotted a giant's skull that appeared to the hiding place of some kind of creature. Gisbert went under next, with a rope tied around his waist, to act as a fishing lure for the unseen creature, and he succeeded in baiting it to come forward and attack him. For several rounds after that, the party engaged in frantic combat against a giant hermit crab with a huge impenetrable skull-shell. After all that, the group still decided to investigate the cracked wall rather than chance crossing the water.

(Artificers get to make themselves magic items periodically, starting at 2nd level, and Traviata's first creation was the cap of water breathing. I chose it from among the available options because I thought it opened up new avenues of exploration. I kind of like that in this case, all it did was allow us to get ourselves in trouble we would have avoided otherwise. We didn't have to fight the crab monster, and in fact, we never would have encountered it at all if Traviata hadn't gone underwater. The monster had no treasure, and we gained nothing by defeating it. All we did was get into a pointless, dangerous fight that risked our lives and risked alerting the people we were trying to sneak up on.)
 
(I don't like adventures where everything is like this. I don't like it when all the treasure is worthless or cursed, all the secrets are harmful, every combat is needless and gains you nothing - but, I do think it's good for some adventures to have some areas like this. It makes a place feel more real when it feels like it exists for itself, rather than existing for the players' benefit. Nothing communicates how dangerous the underworld is better than having placed that exist solely to remind you that it's possible to stick your nose somewhere it didn't belong, and that you profit nothing by indiscriminately treating everything like it's there for your benefit. So while I hope that Traviata will eventually be able to use her cap to do some worthwhile underwater maneuvering, I'm okay with her first outing revealing nothing more than a secret room she'd have been better off not finding.)

Winding through the narrow crevasse in the stone wall, the party eventually made their way to a large open chamber filled with colorful mushrooms growing on mounds of dirt. A number of passages branched off from the chamber, and a stream of oily black liquid flowed out of one chamber before branching out to irrigate each of the mushroom mounds. Turning her alchemical eye to the mushrooms, Traviata determined that they were poisonous and would release deadly spores into the air if disturbed. The group decided to investigate the passage that held the source of the poisoned waters, and found that it was flowing out of a statue of a woman holding a skull and a dagger. Khajj couldn't identify the woman as any known deity, but he did spot that she was wearing a furry white cloak - in fact a giant wig monster. The group engaged in some really intense combat after that, and Traviata spent almost all of it pinned to the ground, held fast by a grasping tentacle of white hair. She's lucky the tentacle was just holding her, rather than trying to crush her to death, because she could not for the life of her break free. Khajj, Gisbert, and Crumb laid into the thing with their best attacks, but the wigmother soaked almost all of it up to no obvious ill effect. Eventually the trio's tactics won the day, and the wig monster was crushed under-hoof.

(I'm not sure if the wigmother had damage reduction, a high AC, or just a lot of hit points, but it spent most of the combat appearing to get hit a lot and not reacting to this at all.)


Gisbert used some of his dwarven carving knowledge to examine the statue after the fight, and found both a hidden chamber inside it holding a magical poisonous dagger, and a font that seemed to be producing the black liquid feeding the mushrooms in the next room. Traviata took the dagger and a vial of the liquid for study. In a second chamber off the mushroom hall, they found a haggard man chained to the wall. The man, Gessel, was another adventurer, and he claimed his own friends had knocked him and out dragged him down here while wearing white wigs. The group recovered 5 vials of potions (3 proved to be healing, and 2 to be magical poison) and then sent Gessel though the crack in the wall and encourage him to climb the handholds in the round chamber to meet Zillan in the tea-shipping office.

Investigating the next passage leading off the mushroom hall, the group found a well-appointed bed chamber, and located a chest full of valuables - piles of coins, a pair of ivory dice, an onyx locket, a silk handkerchief, a soapstone pitcher, a feathered owl mask. They also heard a clinking sound and muffled conversation coming through a door connecting to the bedroom. They decided to get the drop on whoever was on the other side, and flung the door open to surprise a shabby-looking man in a red robe and his dinner guests, a trio of white-wigged adventurers. Khajj and Crumb managed to kill the wig-monsters clinging to the elven, human, and dragonborn adventurers' heads, while Gisbert and Traviata worked together to defeat the red-robed cultist. Gisbert used his shield to protect the pair while Traviata stabbed with her new magically-poisoned dagger, eventually dealing him a death-blow. As he died, he gasped out "You fools! It's too late! You can't stop it now!" A perusal of his body turned up a very fine scimitar and pistol, while a cursory search of the room found more creates and barrels, stuffed with adventuring gear, herbs, tobacco, and mead. After the party revived the freed adventurers, they heard a familiar story, that they were kidnapped by friends wearing wigs, and had no memories after their arrival. The elf Zamph, human Golo, and dragonborn Edwyn thanked the group for their rescue, and each hauled a container of booty as they followed the group's directions to the surface.

Exploring more found a another corridor that circled back to the mushroom hall, and then a final passage leading downstairs to a giant prison cell. The room was filled with adventurers - the group recognized many people they knew from the Redgutter neighborhood - all chained to the wall, and mostly unconscious. As they were woken and freed, they told stories of receiving a package full of wigs and trying them on, or else of being ambushed by wig-wearing friends. Eventually, everyone was set free and instructed to pick up the rest of the cargo before climbing back up to the docks. Continuing past the cell, they found a storage room full of bedrolls, a room with hundred-year-old frescoes depicting everyday life in Scarabae, and a final passage that led back to the circular water-filled room.

(The fact that the entire map was a loop was a real relief, because we were really starting to worry about how we'd ever have time to backtrack to the beginning and clear an entire unexplored wing of the complex.)

As the friends, and all the freed prisoners carrying all the recovered loot, returned to Redgutter with the cultist's body, they laughed as the streets once more filled up with noise. Imagine Voone Jaskar's surprise as his shelves filled back up with plundered goodies! Imagine Wick's face as her bar packed in with weary folks eager for food and drink and conversation! The friend went to Koska's house first, to share the good news with her, but they found Koska at her wit's end, pacing and crying. She pointed to a scorched pattern burnt into her floor and stumbled through her story. Men wearing red robed had teleported into Koska's home, kidnapped her daughter, and teleported away!

They took Koska to Aurulent Masque's house, and Aurulent used her magic to interrogate the dead cultist's body. His corpse claimed to be a member of a group called the Children of Fimbul - druids who want to end all civilization. The Children believe that Koska's adopted daughter Yuriko has magical properties that will aid them in completing some important ritual. The corpse's final bit of information is that the ritual will take place across the sea, in the jungles far to the south. Traviata and her friends were struck silent by the magnitude of the task before them, and wondered how they would be able to rescue Yuriko from being sacrificed an ocean away.

(I got the sense from Jack that this news was the culmination of at least a half dozen threads introduced earlier in the campaign. Unfortunately for me, all the clues are from sessions before I started playing. I'll need to read up on his previous Scarabae session reports to find out more about the Children of Fimbul, their alliance with alien mind-controllers, and their plan for Scarabae and Yuriko.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Two Examples of DIY Gaming

I saw a photo in the Kathmadhu Post of a group of elderly people playing the boardgame Bagh Chal. It appears they've drawn the board on the ground using chalk, and they're using two different colors of stone as their playing pieces.

Elderly people play traditional game Bagchal at Bhaktapur Durbar Square in Bhaktapur on Monday.
Post Photo: Anil Budhathoki

It reminded me of a story I read in Vice a few months ago, about prisoners in US prisons playing D&D. Apparently the most challenging part of playing D&D in prison is nothing to do with the rules, character sheets or adventures - it's making the dice to play with. Their ingenuity under conditions of deprivation are really quite incredible.

Dice made from paper templates. Pencil stubs and colorful plastic pieces serve as miniatures.
Photo courtesy of Melvin Woolley-Bey

Friday, September 29, 2017

Spells I Want to Cast - The Horned King's "Name of the Quarry"

In Dungeon Crawl Classics #72: Beyond the Black Gate, author Harley Stroh introduces a patron called The Horned King, the king of the Wild Hunt. Stroh writes "The Horned King rules from the Thrice-Tenth Kingdom, venturing across the multiverse on his Wild Hunts. A solemn and grim lord, he delights only in the hunt, testing his martial prowess against the deadliest foes. A patron of the old ways, the Horned King bestows his blessing on heathen witches, barbarian shamans, and warriors that exalt the wild savage hidden within."

Beyond the Black Gate includes the Horned King's Invoke patron results, his patron taint, and his 1st level spell, Slaying strike. Stroh also gives the name of the Horned King's next two spells, Name of the quarry and Call of the wild hunt.

Below, I've written a possible version of Name of the quarry. I wrote it awhile ago after reading about the legend of Actaeon, and after reading about the victims of a certain roving internet auto-de-fé, about how they all reported that every time they tried to speak online after being targeted, someone showed up to harass them back into silence, about how they all came to feel that remaining silent was their only defense from having themselves and their family members attacked both online and in person. I have no intention of making light of their experience by writing this; instead it made me think what Actaeon would have felt if his legend had been true.

I think this is a truly evil spell. It's not a spell that kills the target; it's a spell that ruins their life. Refereeing the results of this spell requires the judge to develop an outline of the target's plan for the duration of the spell. Once per day within the game, the judge should make a saving throw on the target's behalf, and if the save fails, report a vision of the target's plight to the caster.



NAME OF THE QUARRY

Level: 2 (Horned King)
Range: Varies
Duration: Varies
Casting time: 1 turn
Save: Will vs. spell check

General: The caster invokes the Wild Hunt to blaspheme the name of a specific creature, her quarry. The caster speaks a litany of complaint against her quarry, destroying its reputation and turning everyone it meets against it. Rumors begin to spread about the quarry and its location, and the caster's words find their way onto the gossipers' lips when they speak of it. At higher levels of success, the spell begins to transform the quarry into a deer-like creature, brands it with a new true name created by the caster's indictment, and turns even the quarry's closest friends and allies into accomplices of the caster and her hunt. This spell's curse becomes especially acute each time the quarry speaks; its only defenses are to remain silent or to flee beyond the range of the spell.

This powerful spell requires at least 1 point of spellburn to cast. Additionally, the caster must select a worthy target as her quarry; the Horned King has no tolerance for cowards who waste his wrath on small game. The caster must select a target with HD at least equal to her current level, or the spellcheck is automatically treated as a result of 1, and this result cannot be altered by spending spellburn or luck.

Manifestation: Roll 1d4: (1) The entire text of the caster's indictment is burned into nearby stone, a permanent monument available for any visitor to read; (2) all the birds in the forest begin singing and tweeting the caster's complaint, her words echo in the local birdsong for the duration of the spell; (3) the air fills with the scent of blood and all the predators of the wood howl and cry, for the duration of the spell their eyes turn red and they gather in the open as proud and unafraid as if they were rabid; (4) a vision of a ghostly white deer appears before the caster and flees at top speed, for the duration of the spell, wherever the caster looks, she will see a vision of the ghostly hind fleeing from the corner of her eye.

Mifire: Roll 1d6: (1) The party immediately encounters a local wild animal which attacks the caster, and any tame animals in the party join for one attack against the caster each; (2) for the rest of the day, any strangers the party encounters will be automatically hostile, and will automatically attack if the caster speaks to them; (3) for the next week, whenever the party hears rumors, at least one will be about the caster, accusing her of cowardice and weakness; (4) for the next week, whenever the party hears rumors, at least one will be about the intended target, praising its virtues; (5) 1d6 men-at-arms (DCC434) and 1d6 wolves (DCC431) appear before the intended target and swear their fealty to help it track and slay the caster; (6) the intended target learns the caster's current location and a lesser secret name for the caster, granting it the benefits described in result 30-31 below.

1    Failure! Lost, misfire, and patron taint. Unlike normal spells, this spell may not be attempted against the same target for at least one month, or against a different target for at least a week.

2-11    Failure, lost. Unlike normal spells, this spell may not be attempted against the same target for at least one week, or against a different target for at least a day.

12-13    Failure, but spell is not lost. However, unlike normal spells, this spell may not be attempted against the same target for at least one day.

14-15    For the next day, every time the quarry speaks, it must save or strangers become hostile to it and nearby strange animals become restive and anxious in its presence. The caster receives a faint premonition each time the quarry fails a save. This effect is only active in the immediate geographic region around the casting location (a castle, a dungeon level, a village, a neighborhood within a city.)

16-19    For the next week, every time the quarry speaks, it must save or strangers become hostile to it, acquaintances become indifferent, nearby strange animals attack it, and nearby familiar animals become restive and anxious. The caster receives a faint premonition each time the quarry fails a save. During this week, every time the caster and her companions hear rumors, at least one will be about the quarry. This effect is active in the close geographic region around the casting location (a castle or village and the surrounding countryside, a dungeon level or city neighborhood as well as the adjacent levels and neighborhoods.)

20-21    For the next week, every time the quarry speaks, it must save or strangers and strange animals attack it, acquaintances and familiar animals become hostile to it, and even close friends become uncomfortable and indifferent toward it. The caster receives a definite impression of the result each time the quarry fails a save. During this week, every time the caster and her companions hear rumors, at least one will be about the quarry. This effect is active in the entire geographic region around the casting location (an entire countryside, on every level of a dungeon, throughout a city and its metropolitan area.)

22-25    The quarry permanently grows the stub antlers of a fawn deer. For the next month, every time the quarry speaks, strangers and strange animals attack it with no save allowed, and it must save or acquaintances and familiar animals attack it, and even close friends become hostile to it. The caster receives a definite impression of the result each time the quarry is attacked. During this month, every time the caster and her companions hear rumors, at least one will be about the quarry. This effect is active in the entire geographic region around the casting location, and along the borders of the neighboring regions.

26-29    The quarry permanently grows the antlers of an adult deer. For the next month, every time the quarry speaks, strangers, acquaintances, and any nearby animals attack it with no save allowed, and it must save or even close friends attack as well. The caster hears the sounds of combat each time the quarry is attacked. During this month, every time the caster and her companions hear rumors, at least one will be about the quarry. This effect remains active throughout the entire kingdom or country where the spell was cast, as well as along the borders of neighboring principalities.

30-31    The caster brands her quarry with a new lesser secret name. The quarry gains a -1 penalty to saving throws against all spells sent by the caster and anyone else who knows their new name, and all attempts to magically influence the quarry by using this new name gain a +1 to the spell check result. The quarry permanently grows the antlers of an adult deer, and its ears reshape to become deer-like. For the next year, every time the quarry speaks, everyone nearby attacks it with no save allowed. The caster hears the sounds of combat each time the quarry is attacked. During this year, every time the caster and her companions hear rumors, at least one will be about the quarry. This effect remains active in every land and kingdom of the empire where the spell was cast.

32-33    The caster brands her quarry with a new greater secret name. The quarry gains a -2 penalty to saving throws against all spells sent by the caster and anyone else who knows their new name, and all attempts to magically influence the quarry by using this new name gain a +2 to the spell check result. The quarry permanently grows the antlers of an adult deer, its ears reshape to become deer-like, its hind feet become cloven hooves, and it becomes an obligate vegetarian unable to consume meat. For the next year, every time the quarry speaks, everyone nearby attacks it with no save allowed. The caster receives a vision through the eyes of an attacker every time the quarry is attacked. During this year, every time the caster and her companions hear rumors, at least one will be about the quarry. This effect remains active throughout the empire where the spell was cast, as well as its imperial neighbors.

34+    The caster brands her quarry with a new true secret name. The quarry gains a -4 penalty to saving throws against all spells sent by the caster and anyone else who knows their new name, and all attempts to magically influence the quarry by using this new name gain a +4 to the spell check result. The quarry permanently grows the antlers and furry coat of an adult deer, its ears and entire face reshape to become deer-like, its hind legs become back-bending and its hind feet become cloven hooves, and it becomes an obligate vegetarian unable to consume meat. For the rest of the target's life, every time it speaks, everyone nearby attacks it with no save allowed. The caster receives a vision through the eyes of an attacker every time the quarry is attacked. For the next generation, every time the caster and her companions hear rumors, at least one will be about the quarry, whose infamy will be still spoken of by today's children until their old age. This effect remains active anywhere in the world; the quarry can only escape by fleeing to another planet or plane of existence.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Book Cover Trends - White Face Dark Background

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (released May 2015)

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (released September 2015)

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (released April 2016)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Keep Your Frenemies Closer in Scarabae

Here is a summary of my third adventure in the weird Gothic world of Scarabae.


This time around, Traviata was re-joined by the pugilist Mortimer and the werewolf-ish Leonid, alongside the dragonborn sorcerer Viktor. The tiefling fixer Koska had called the group together to retrieve a missing master recording - a glass disc inscribed with magic, used to mass-produce wax cylinders - belonging to the ultra-avant-garde ultra-goth noise musician Yvana Gallows. Koska was visibly gaga over Yvana's celebrity (and deep pockets) and had busted out the bubbly for the occasion. Mortimer seemed pretty agog himself, while Traviata spent the entire meeting frowning, scowling, and biting her tongue while Yvana explained how burdensome it is to be just. so. famous. for your art. Yvana was convinced that the recording was stolen by someone hoping to profit off her celebrity by black-market retailing the soon-to-be bestselling album. She was sure she could re-record it, but thought the original version was special and had a certain je ne sais quoi that might be impossible to recapture. Mortimer and Leonid seemed smitten, nearly tripping over themselves volunteering to return the album. Viktor kept his wits, and negotiated hazard pay if anyone died during the recovery. Traviata experienced massive cognitive dissonance at the idea of helping one of her enemies, but talked herself into it by convincing herself that the attention and scandal that bootleg copies of the album would attract would mean even more undeserved fame for Yvana than if it were released normally ... and by securing a promise to see her own name in print in the album liner notes if the group was successful.

(Jack described Yvana Gallows as a black-clad Andy Warhol figure. Somehow she also reminded me of the artist character in KJ Bishop's short story "The Art of Dying." I had a lot of fun playing up the social awkwardness of this situation with Jack. He played Yvana as someone who's very thoughtless about how her actions affect the people around her, and as someone who somehow manages to both humble-brag and brag-brag with nearly every word she says. Meanwhile, I had originally conceived Traviata as someone who thinks of every artist more successful than her as an enemy. And while I haven't thought a lot about Traviata's opera career, I've been assuming that "more successful artist" is basically every artist. So Traviata already hates Yvana on principle, especially hates listen to her praising herself, and especially especially hates finding herself in a situation where she's doing Yvana a favor. The idea of Traviata practically turning red with anger, and having to stop herself from interjecting a response to everything Yvana said - this is slapstick comedy material, and a different type than the adventurers-as-Keystone-Kops variety of slapstick that D&D usually produces. So as I said, the social scenes were very fun, but this whole adventure produces a crisis for Traviata's characterization that I'll come back to at the end.)

The group debated a variety of ways to track down potential thieves through their fences or vendors, but decided to check out the recording studio first. Their plans for any kind of social investigation went right out the window (or rather, right down the sewer grate) when they saw how the thieves broke in to the studio - by cutting through a metal sewer grate to come up through the floor, using cutting tools or cutting magic that left salt residue all over the scene. So, rather than look for the thieves' social contacts, they decided to just look for the thieves directly by going into the sewers. Leonid's wolf nose pretty quickly picked out the smell of salt, and the group followed his nose into the tunnels. They found a patch of salty hand- and foot-prints, like someone fell into the water and then left a residue on the tunnel floor. Then they found a giant disused subway worm hanging from the ceiling.

(I can only hope that the sewers in Scarabe look like the ones in The Third Man. Scarabae has biotechnology - giant hollow worms that serve as subway trains, giant hollow beetles that replace elevators scrabbling up the sides of buildings. It's a Weird city, and these details fit the aesthetic perfectly.)

The group climbed up into the broken old worm-train, where their combined weight made it fall off its mounting brackets and into the water - where it immediately went berserk and started speeding down the tunnel at breakneck pace. A couple of masked men dressed in palm (or fern?) frond clothing, carrying oversized white salt axes, managed to leap aboard and attack the investigators, and then disintegrated into salt themselves when they were defeated. Then the worm-train crashed, and since Leonid's player's internet connection died, we decided that he basically did break his neck in the crash, or at least that he was knocked unconscious for the rest of the adventure.

Getting out of the wreck, the remaining characters saw that they were on an island with a Himalayan pink-salt-crystal sun shining overhead. At this point, the group assumed they were in some kind of deep underground cavern, presumably where the city's sewers empty into a natural underground river or lake ... but the weird salt-lamp sun was pretty disconcerting, and suggested that they were much deeper into some kind of Hollow Earth situation than should really have been possible. They saw a village in the distance and a black ziggurat closer by. They snuck around the edges of the island, and managed to come at the ziggurat from the side. Four of the six temple guards in front of the building spotted them anyway and came around for a fight, and after those were defeated, the group took out the two who stayed guarding the door. Mortimer's flurries of blows, and Viktor's magic slippers that let him stick to the walls of the building were the real stars of this fight. Also, again, every time one of the guards died, they just dissolved into piles of salt.

(We had varying theories about what Jack is calling "the saline men." Initially, I think we suspected golems or living statues or some other magical constructs made of salt. Then we might have thought that these were normal humans who'd somehow been magically transformed to salt - or at least I thought that. The waterfall we found inside the ziggurat maybe seemed to support this idea. But by the very end, we realized that we were in a different kind of place with different physical laws, and that being made of salt was nothing special, it was just these people's ordinary condition.)

On the ground floor of the temple, we passed through a foyer into some kind of grand burial chamber. There was a salt-crusted mummy on display at the center of the room. The walls were covered in simple stick figures depicting various kinds of artists making art, and their audiences shunning them. So there was a musician playing to an audience of people covering their ears, a painter showing a painting to an audience of people covering their eyes, etc. Viktor was able to read the hieroglyphs, and learned that this was the burial chamber of Razo the Unlistening, a religious leader who taught that all art is sinful, and exhorted his followers to steal art and ritually destroy it. Traviata was incensed by a religion of people with "bad taste" passing judgment on art. Mortimer accused her of being the same as the Razors, since she was disparaging Yvana's "popular music" earlier in the adventure. Traviata tried to brush him off - "They hate the wrong art!" - but his comments really cut into her. Further back was a waterfall coming out of the wall of ziggurat and stairs leading up. The group was afraid to touch the water or get too close, but dipping in a spear caused it to become either covered in or transformed into salt.

The group went upstairs and found six Razor priests. Mortimer tried to reason with them and/or present them with a logical paradox (that their temple used art to teach them to hate art) but their faith was impervious to his attempts to out-logic them. The priests had a special ritual where they covered their ears, shut their eyes, and chanted "no, no, no, no," which caused them to grow giant salt crowns which then fired at the adventurers. Viktor cast a badass thunderwave spell that slammed half the priests, and Mortimer tore through them with another flurry of punches. They peeked under the back door and saw the ankles of another priest. Traviata managed to spill some acid under the door, which let the group get the drop on him. The high priest of Razo was still a tough opponent, despite the advantage of numbers and surprise. He swatted a spell right out of Viktor's hand, somehow turning the magic to salt, which swirled around the room and then fell to the floor. He also summoned a human-sized magic hammer that attacked by itself, and exploded more salt crystals from his head. Viktor and Traviata both went into shock and started dying while Mortimer saved the day by pummeling him to dust. Mortimer continued saving the day by saving his two friends' lives, and barring the door so they had time to recover.

They recovered the high priests awesome green-salt mask, a globe of glowing pink salt, a potion, and Yvana Gallows' master record. Traviata again criticized the Razors, and Mortimer again acted as her conscience by forcing her to confront her own flaws. "How are you any different than them? You hate Yvana too." "I don't hate her because she's bad, I hate her because she's more popular than me!" This admission / realization really shook Traviata, and probably helped prevent her from doing anything intemperate. She used her theatrical skills to disguise Mortimer as the high priest. He went up to the top of the ziggurat, which was a stage open to the village below. None of the villagers were watching though, so he didn't have a chance to try to provide them with any new prophetic guidance. On the way back out of the temple however, the group used Traviata's alchemical acid to etch away the figures rejecting the art, leaving only the images of artists behind. They also destroyed the salt-shell surrounding the body of Razo, and discovered that his corpse had long since desiccated and disintegrated, which saved them the trouble of destroying that too.
 
They got back on the worm-train, used the controls to drive it back along the path they'd followed to the island, and discovered that they'd passed through a magic portal on the way to the island. The island wasn't underground; it was on another planet, maybe even another plane of existence. Between the two of them, Viktor and Traviata managed to close the portal almost down to nothing, but left it slightly ajar in the hopes of returning to it in the future. They took the train the rest of the way back to the studio, and emerged to return the record to Koska and Yvana. Mortimer proudly handed over the record, and even played a harmonica solo for Yvana. Yvana was once again pretty thoughtless about the hardships the group had been though, although she agreed to pay the hazard fee since Leonid "hadn't made it back" (he hadn't made it back to Koska's, but his friends had dropped his sleeping body off at his apartment.) Traviata ended up getting infuriated again, although too late to do anything about it. After the adventure was over, she ended up buying a copy of Yvana's newest wax cylinder, the one she helped save, and hate-listened to it in her lab while brooding about how she had failed to exact revenge on one of her enemies, and about how Mortimer's words had confused and hurt her. Mortimer, meanwhile, discovered weeks later that Yvana had recorded a new single, where she stole the melody from his harmonica performance and gave him zero credit for writing it.

 
(So, obviously there is a meta-game reason why this session went the way it did. Obviously I was not going to skip out on the game just because Traviata wouldn't want to go on this mission, nor was I going cause the other characters to lose out on the small fortune Yvana was paying, or risk them getting beaten up or killed by her bodyguards, just because Traviata might want to do something impetuous. Those decisions were driven by my desires as a player - to play the session rather than skipping it, and to be a good teammate to my fellow players. My social contract with the other actual human beings playing the game overrides any within-game fictional need for my character to do stupid, destructive things.)

(But, those decisions also mean that Traviata has to do some serious soul-searching after this session. She could have tried to destroy Yvana's record, but let it get delivered without a scratch on it. She could have tried to kill or maim Yvana - she certainly killed enough saline men - but never lifted a finger against her. And Mortimer's attempts to act as her conscience meant that she was confronted with how ugly her hatred for other musicians really is, and how much her own opinions resemble the beliefs of a religion that she condemned for being too opinionated - or at least for being incorrect in its opinions. Traviata, as I originally conceived her, started out halfway to being a villain. In this session, she had the chance to be a villain and didn't take it. So what should she do next?)

(One option would be to have her pursue the other half of her personal mission - to help other sick and innocent people. Saving the patient and nurse from the clinic, and turning over the evidence to the Court of Wands are all steps in that direction. She could become a better person, learn to let go of her anger. I don't know if I'm ready for her to fully commit and become just good, however, instead of the interesting chaotic individual she is right now.)

(Another option would be for her to redouble her efforts on her next adventure - find someone who's enjoying the professional success she wanted but never got, and ruin that person's life. We'll see, but I don't necessarily think that's going to happen. Part of the social contract between players, I think, is not engaging in a lot of really self-indulgent spotlight stealing while everyone else is forced to sit on their hands, and I don't want to break that part of the contract either. Traviata could also lash out and try to physicalize her roiling, conflicted emotions. Smash her own treasures, burn down her apartment, hire the rescued nurse to amputate her leg and replace it with the wooden prosthesis. This probably runs into the self-indulgence problem again, unless it's handled as "downtime activities," although I suppose I could play her a little more angry and erratic throughout the session.)

(A more promising solution would be for Traviata to lean into her alchemy and mad scientist-ness. She's about to level up and learn to cast spells, and her alchemical acids and fires are about to get more powerful. She could also help fund Viktor's research into the portal and/or try to build a machine to help open and close the door to the Saline Realm. If she has enough cash, she could even hire Koska to put together a team to go collect alchemical salts and reagents from the other side of the portal. The leg thing fits here too, because it's totally a mad scientist-y thing to do, and it can happen off-camera and between sessions. This is probably the direction I'm going to try to take her.)

(And then finally, I guess Traviata could try doing more art. She liked using her knowledge of operatic storylines to help figure out the haunted apartment, and using her experience with stagecraft to lower the team "from the skylights" into the clinic. She likes singing to inspire her teammates - and give them temporary hit points before battle. If she could find a way to feel more successful as an artist, she might not feel so angry at people like Yvana all the time. The opportunities for this kind of fulfillment are likely to be limited though, at least compared to the chances to become a better alchemist, so we'll see, but this will probably not be the primary direction of her future growth.)

(I've been reading a little bit about the Burning Wheel family of games, and it sounds like they're supposed to facilitate character growth and decision-making like I've been talking about here. I don't know how I feel about trying to systematize that however. Part of me likes that it's basically a completely optional part of the game - I really don't spend as much time thinking about the emotions of most of my other characters, but there's something special about Traviata. Part of me also wants to learn a little more about how they handle it mechanically, to see if there's any part of it that I would ever want to bring in as a house-rule in my own games. 5e has some characterization mechanics, with things like the background bond, ideal, goal, and flaw, and with things like gaining and spending inspiration. But I wonder if anything in the Burning Wheel games would point to a way to modify those things a little to encourage or reward a character's emotional journey or development.)

Monday, August 21, 2017

Playtesting Dragon Heresy

Last year, I played in a couple playtest sessions with Gaming Ballistic, and I recently found the play reports while poking around on his blog. The test was for Dragon Heresy, which is an in-progress 5e clone that will no doubt be on Kickstarter and for sale one day.

(For those interested, Dragon Heresy differs from 5e in two main ways. First, the setting is in fantasy-Scandinavia instead of the Forgotten Realms. Second, it employs several variants the standard D&D combat rules, for example "vigor" and "wounds" replace standard hit points and armor acts as damage reduction instead of as something that lets you avoid getting hit altogether. It stands in relation to 5e in simultaneously the same ways that both Iron Heroes and Arcana Unearthed stand in relation to 3e.)



The first play report is here.

In the first session, the characters were tasked with recovering some forgotten crown jewels and documents proving something like the authenticity of the jewels and their hereditary connection to some current nobility.

I played a rune-casting barbarian, a new archetype from Dragon Heresy who can express dwarven runes while raging. (If I recall, most of the runes allow the barbarian to deal or become resistant to different kinds of damage. The other new archetypes for the other classes seemed cool and flavorful as well.)

The highlight of the session was fighting an angry hill giant. The revised combat rules mean that characters and monsters have more "vigor" than they would ordinarily have hit points, but they also have many fewer "wounds" - so attacks that directly target the wound reserve, which includes missile attacks, are more powerful.



The second play report is here.

In the second session, we fought a couple of wights riding ghostly horses. In this fight, the things that don't improve with level - the way that hit points and vigor do - worked against us this time. Another character fell off a parapet and nearly died from the fall, because "wounds" are fixed at 1st level, and falling goes straight "wounds" not "vigor." My character also nearly died from sheer exhaustion. Raging increases exhaustion, rune-casting increases exhaustion, (and possibly, being touched by a wight increases exhaustion) - and again, the amount of this a character can endure is fixed at 1st level. Running yourself ragged remains dangerous throughout your character's life. So despite the wights probably not being as dangerous as the giant, both our characters nearly died in this fight, because the same damage-rule asymmetry that we turned against the giant got turned against us this time around.

Those were the only two playtests that I participated in. Not long after I played, he launched a Kickstarter for a standalone volume of his variant grappling rules, which is now for sale as the book Dungeon Grappling.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Michael Lewis's Real World Dungeon I Want to Explore - The Hanford Nuclear Site

If I were creating my own "Appendix N" of inspirational literature to base my games on, the first book I'd add to the list would be Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky.

I'll write about it more another time, but the basic scenario is ideal for adventure gaming - an abandoned site (the zone), filled with invaluable treasures (swag) and incomprehensible dangers; adventurers (stalkers) sneak into this site, hoping to avoid death and disfigurement and to return with enough wealth to retire; conditions inside the site defy ordinary laws of physics and perceptions of reality; and the adventurers return to the site over and over, as much from curiosity and wonder as from greed.

It is a scenario that other authors have revisited, often in more-or-less overt homage to the Strugatsky brothers: Nova Swing by M John Harrison, Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, Annihilation and the other "Southern Reach" books by Jeff Vandermeer, Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld, as well as the sections describing the Cacatopic Stain and the Scar in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and The Scar. (Spill Zone is especially interesting to me because it mashes-up the tradition of Zone stories with the new trend of 1980s-aesthetic weird and horror fiction: Beyond the Black Rainbow, Paper Girls, Beyond the Silver Scream, Stranger Things, Tales from the Loop.)

I once read a review of Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, an adaptation of Roadside Picnic, that suggested the film took on a new life after the Chernobyl incident, because the film's images of a town overtaken by plants and wildlife, a town surrounded by fences and guarded by the military, a town where simply being present can be deadly because of invisible reality-warping forces, because those images eerily prefigured the appearance of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone 14 years later.

I am sometimes drawn to the idea of games that incorporate elements of the real into the fiction of the game. Fighting real animals instead of "monsters," stealing real objects instead of "treasures," exploring real places instead of "dungeons." (Not really fighting, really stealing, or really exploring, of course, but rather having fictional encounters with things that are real.) When I think about the dungeons I want to explore, I think of real places that I will never visit, because they are distant, or inaccessible, or illegal to enter.


 
I recently read a description of the Hanford Nuclear Site, a site where plutonium was once produced, and where plutonium waste is now cleaned. The United States government, through the Department of Energy, spends $3 billion per year, and employs 9000 people for the clean-up. The article where I read the description is a very good, very disturbing read. And just as people looked at Chernobyl and thought of Stalker, I read of Hanford, and I think of Roadside Picnic.

There is something Lovecraftian about nearly everyone's attitude toward knowledge about Hanford, at least as described in the article. It is an attitude of not wanting to know, because people have already planned and decided to act a certain way, and knowing might cause them to be aware of information that would compel them to act differently, or at least to feel guilty about continuing to act the way they decided. Nearly everyone wants their billions of dollars, their thousands of jobs, their yachts, their wine, their bistros - or else they want to stop spending that money entirely and all-at-once - and almost no one wants to know information that might change their plans, either way. It is an attitude of intentional in-curiosity on the part of almost everyone around Hanford, and it is so different from the all-consuming curiosity that drives the stalkers who enter the Visitation Zone in Roadside Picnic.

 
Below is a long quote from the article, describing the Hanford Nuclear Site, very lightly edited to focus on the description of the site.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Iditarod & Medevac in Scarabae

Here is a summary of my second adventure playing in the New Weird city of Scarabae.

The Scarabae campaign is open-table and episodic. Each time I've played, a broker of some sort has offered the team of player characters a job, we've accepted, and it's been off to the races. Our first adventure was brokered by a dwarven banker who was trying to evict the nightmares that were squatting in a bank-owned property. This adventure was brokered by tiefling woman who I gather is a sort of fixer or agent to the underworld, although her involvement in the job seemed to be more out of ethnic solidarity than because it involved anything particularly illegal. She wanted the group to deliver medicine to another tiefling, who was a patient inside a clinic that was temporarily cut off from the outside world.

Specifically, the clinic was "cut off" by an army of white-robed cultists surrounding the building and killing anyone who got too close.

(My first thought was "This reminds me of what an abortion clinic looks like when it's being besieged by anti-rights activists." My second thought was "Wouldn't it be a short adventure if our characters were hyper-religious and agreed with the cultists?")

The characters knew they wouldn't be able to fight their way through, but Traviata had an idea. Remembering her days in the theater, she thought of using ropes to lower the party down to the roof of the clinic by using the nearby residential towers as a kind of scaffolding. After they bought the ropes, she got to go down first, Peter Pan style, or perhaps, Mission Impossible style. There was a skylight on the roof, and melting a hole in the glass using her alchemical acid seemed like the quietest way in, at least quieter than smashing the glass with a club.

(If I hadn't thought of using stage wires to lower down, I'm sure we could have found a way up from the sewers under the building. Traviata isn't much good in a fight, so I like when she gets to help in other ways. It's clear that her past in the opera is still an important part of her identity; I wonder if that will change as she has new experiences during her adventures.)

The group started examining the clinic, and found several empty hospital rooms, with fresh-made beds, visiting chairs, and the smell of antiseptic. The place gave Traviata the creeps, since it reminded her of her time being treated for tuberculosis. They also found the bedroom of the clinic's proprietor, a dwarf who decorated his bedroom with a huge gaudy crest of a scalpel being forged on an anvil, and a huge guady painting of himself wielding the scalpel like a sword. The proprietor was nowhere to be found, but the group did find his library. They discovered a half-dozen texts written in Deep Tongue detailing the summoning of aberrant monsters. Traviata also found a book on lungs and lung diseases and tucked it into her bag.

(Traviata picked the lock on the dwarven doctor's bedroom door. Traviata was also the one to decipher the alien texts. I had a bonus language that I hadn't assigned yet, so Deep Tongue it was. Again, I got to do some nice characterization by portraying Traviata's fear of hospitals, and her interest in lung diseases.)

The characters checked the two closed rooms next. The first closed room had the body of a halfling with an exploded head. The halfling's brain - presumably! - had grown tentacles and a beak, and was now eating the halfling's dead body. There was a nasty fight. Erron, a half-elven bard, took a tentacle to the shoulder, but made his saving throw, so he got a very nasty scar, but no burrowing baby grell parasite. Traviata had a tentacle wrap around her leg and then inject into her calf. She also made her save, but dropped to 0 hit points and went into shock. Our pugilist wrestled the monster into submission by grappling all of its tentacles, and our warlock blasted the helpless creature to pieces. Erron the bard helped stabilize Traviata, and she spent the next hour regaining consciousness while the group barricaded themselves in the room.

Fig 1 - The Grell (the first monster?)
(This encounter got me thinking a bit about the conventions of the horror genre. What makes the army of uncanny white robed figures really scary? The fact that we don't have enough hit points, attacks, or bullets to simply fight our way through them. What makes this monster "horrific" instead of just "gross"? The fact that we could hardly kill the thing, and it nearly killed two of us. Being badly outgunned by enemies that are almost too strong for you to fight seems to be part of what makes this "horror." The uncanny stillness of the clinic was another part. There were no wandering monsters, no sense that the clinic was active or alive. Instead, what makes it "horror" is that the monsters are not all over, they are only at "the end," waiting for you to come to them.)

After this incident, they relied more heavily on the warlock, who claimed to have an imaginary friend who could scout ahead. I like to think that all the other characters thought he was just making this up, but the scouted information proved accurate, and helped us think we could avoid getting ambushed again. We'd used the invisible familiar before, but we really stepped it up after Erron and Traviata almost died. The next closed room had the tiefling patient the characters were hired to find in the first place. We injected him with his medicine, learned that he couldn't walk, learned that he'd been attacked by the brain monster and definitely hadn't made his save, and then debated what to do next. I don't think we seriously considered just leaving, having fulfilled the contract to deliver his medicine, although a couple players joked that we should. We did seriously consider just pulling him out with us and calling it a night, but Mortimer the prizefighter was moved by the patient's pleas to rescue his favorite nurse, and Traviata felt guilty about potentially allowing an infection to spread untreated. Ultimately, we decided to send the warlock's imaginary friend downstairs, and the followed it to look for the nurse.

(After waking up, Traviata used her "inspiring leader" feat to sing to the other characters and empower them with temporary hit points. This is a useful ability, but there's no way to use it without seeming like a diva - which is why it's helpful that Traviata is literally a diva. I enjoyed Traviata's mixed feelings here. On the one hand, she nearly died and had a permanent wound that might still turn out to have a parasite in it. On the other hand, she didn't want to risk the monsters escaping from the clinic and spreading infection around the city. On the other other hand, the tiefling patient, Alphonse Damajin, was obviously an active carrier of the disease, and the humanitarian act of bringing him out of the clinic might endanger the lives of others. It was a real ethical dilemma, but of course, Traviata planned to decide based on her tumultuous emotions, rather than any kind of rigorous cost-benefit analysis.)

The characters went downstairs from the bedroom first, and found a kind of staff break room that combined a kitchenette with set-up for boiling used surgical instruments. Traviata pocketed a random handful of clean surgical tools, including a bone saw. Next, they went downstairs from the patient rooms next, and found the waiting room and the front door. Off the waiting room, they went into the surgery, where they found a dead troll with a half-dozen open wounds that obviously had parasites inside. Traviata really wanted to burn the body, but decided not to for fear of fire spreading the the clinic. Then the suite and supply closets off the surgery, we found more medical books, more medical instruments, and a variety of prosthetic limbs. Traviata took a wooden lower leg to potentially replace her injured limb. We also found the nurse, who was clearly traumatized by the initial parasite attack, and was prepared to defend herself with a scalpel. When we led the nurse back through the surgery to go upstairs, three of the parasites had emerged from the body, looking like creepy alien spiders, and there was another dangerous combat. Fortunately, these parasites only injected poison, not larvae, because a couple of characters failed their poison saves during the fight. This combat ended the same way the last one did, with Mortimer grappling a monster, and Tobias the warlock magically obliterating it.

Fig 2 - The Neogi (the second monster?)
(I knew we should have burned that body! The waiting room was decorated with Vetruvian Men from a dozen different species. The idea reminded me of the pencil drawings that decorated the first page of every chapters in the 3rd Edition D&D rulebooks. The medical texts and the prostheses were ecumenical with regard to species as well, really emphasizing what a diverse city Scarabae is. It's interesting how high fantasy, space opera, and the new weird all describe societies where dozens of non-human - but human-like - species coexist not just in the same world, but often in the same city. The three genres all use the same building blocks, but then assemble them in different ways, and certainly to different effects. But what this means is that it's relatively easy to take the elements of a story or game in one genre, and then reassemble them in a different genre. So Pathfinder's high fantasy easy transforms into Starfinder's space opera; and 5e supplies the component parts of Scarabae.)

Fig 3 - The Neh-Thalggu, or The Brain Collector (the second monster?)
After defeating the spider-like parasites, the characters did burn the infected body, and led the nurse back through the first floor. Between the waiting room and the break room should have been the doctor's private office, where they saw a line of discarded clothing items leading to an acid-rimmed hole in the wall. Nope! The characters brought the nurse upstairs, re-united her with the patient, and then hoisted them both back up the ropes to the apartments overhead. As they climbed, they saw all the cultists filing into clinic in an orderly and ominous fashion. They returned Damajin to the tiefling broker, so that she could reunite him with his family, then took samples of materials from the clinic - the dead brain-like parasite, one of the dead spider-like parasites, and the larva the nurse extracted from Dramajin's shoulder and stored in one of Traviata's glass vials - and delivered them to the Court of Wands. The representative of the wizarding guild seemed entirely disinterested in the evidence, much to Mortimer and Traviata's dismay.

(I'm still finding my legs in Scarabae. Erron and Tobias seemed convinced that the parasite attack was caused by the doctor who ran the clinic performing unethical experiments, while Traviata assumed that it was an "exotic" illness that was brought into the city by a traveler from outside. Erron and Tobias also seemed to assume that contacting the Court of Wands would be useless, while Traviata was definitely surprised that they weren't taking the threat of a deadly communicable disease more seriously. If the opportunity arises, she might try to investigate the matter more without the Wands' help. She might also decide to replace her own injured leg, even if it doesn't contain a parasite larva. That seems like a suitably mad-scientist kind of thing for her to do.)

Fig 4 - The Fleshwarper (a possible future for Traviata?)
(In my first adventure in Scarabae, Traviata drew on her history in the opera to realize that the shadows and wraiths inside the haunted house were acting out aspects of an event, and that the key to defeating the haunting was to act the event out entirely, but with a better or more satisfying ending. But she didn't originally realize that they would also have to kill the monsters. Using dream logic could defeat the haunting as a whole, but it couldn't defeat the individual haunts. Both drama and violence were necessary. Traviata is good at drama, but not very good at violence, and maybe still not very good at understanding the uncanny blending of these multiple logics inside Scarabae. One thing I should do before my next session as a player should be to look up 5e's rules for reloading crossbows and firearms. I've only been using Traviata's shotgun in the first round of combat, but if it can be reloaded and reused, then she can probably do more to help win at fights.)