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