Thursday, December 27, 2018

GFA18 - Mountain Lion Magic Items

Okay, so actually the FINAL final mountain lion entry for the 2018 Gongfarmer's Almanac is a pair of mountain-lion themed magic items. I almost forgot I wrote this! My Black Powder Black Magic campaign needs a fair number of magic items, because characters can find demon ore, and trade it for magic items, which means the campaign NEEDS magic items for the characters to acquire. (Ideally, characters should have to "quest for it" rather than just trading in the ore like it's currency, and long term, I should possibly think about some kind of rule for "retiring" items that have been used long enough, but those are concerns for different posts.)
So the story behind both these items is that I watched the Lego Batman movie, and Catwoman has like one line in the whole movie, where she's helping a gang of villains break into a building, and we see her on the comms, and she's like "Meow-meow, we're in, meow-meow!" It's practically a throw-away line, but I loved the idea of her bookending all her sentences that way. So then I watched Black Panther, and the little sister Shuri has these cat-faced gauntlets that fire vibrating soundwaves as a weapon. And in my head, every time she fires these things, she says "meow-meow, meow-meow!" (Next time you watch Black Panther, try adding that sound-effect yourself. It's delightful!)
So the first item is pretty much just Shuri's gauntlets, and the second is a variation on the same idea, which arises out of the first. (It also lets you play at being Lego Catwoman, the same way the first one lets you play at being Shuri.) Plus, I don't know, in addition to the fun of getting my players to say "meow-meow" to use their magic item, I kind of like the idea that a magic item might have a command word that the players have to know and say. The presence of a "magic word" has a certain fariy-tale-ness to it that I like, and having the player say the magic word is sort of an immersive role-playing element. Outside of a situation like this, I would probably pick magic words like "abracadabra", "alakazam", "hocus pocus", and "open sesame". 
Danny Prescott edited this article, and the others in the series, and he was a big help in making sure that my physical descriptions evoked the right mental image and that my instructions were clear and easy to understand.
Gauntlets of the wailing mountain lion: These metal forearm-guards are made of the same vibrating material as a tuning fork or xylophone bar. The gauntlets seem to hum or purr constantly, sounding a musical note when struck against each other or used in combat. Each guard is carved to look like a mountain lion, tail wrapped around the wearer's forearms, haunches gripping the wrist, and the lion’s chin resting on the knuckles.
The gauntlets grant +1 AC and allow the wearer to make an unarmed punch for 1d4 damage, but prevent wielding another weapon in combat. They are ideally paired for two-weapon fighting. At least once per day the wearer can invoke the mouths to fire a soundwave at a target as a ranged attack for 1d14 damage by saying magical phrase "myow-myow," and the player has to say it out loud.
Spellcasters can use this power a number of times per day equal to the highest spell-level they can cast. If the wearer uses two-weapon fighting to fire two soundwaves at once, this counts as only a single use of the gauntlets.
Gloves of the were-lion thief: These coal black mouse-leather gloves have weighted knuckles. The leather on the back of the wrists and hands is worked to look like a cat preparing to pounce - tail curled above the wrist, haunches perched on the hand, chin and forepaws gripping the knuckles.
If worn by a non-thief these gloves allow the wearer to make an unarmed attack like a blackjack (1d3 subdual damage) with an additional +1 to hit and +1 damage, and once a day, the wearer can say the magic phrase "myow-myow" to use any one thief skill using a d24 skill die.
If worn by a trained thief they function as above, however the thief may instead say the magic word to roll a d24 skill die thrice per day, and if the thief uses this power while backstabbing the attack deals lethal instead of subdual damage with the automatic crit rolled on the monster crit table. When invoked, the player has to say the magic phrase out loud. Thieves who use this power more than once per day must use it for a different skill each time.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

GFA18 - Were Cougar

The last entry in my series of mountain lion variations for the 2018 Gongfarmer's Alamanc is the were-cougar. Traditionally, the ability to shapeshift between human and feline forms is associated with the wampus cat, but I thought it was an interesting enough ability to stand alone. For roleplaying monsters, I think it may be better to have just one really stand-out ability, and for the wampus cougar, that was already the mourner's wail, and the were-cougar was born. 
She's the only mountain lion with a real alignment, and I thought giving her a demon's crit sort of fit well with her supernatural aspect. While I wanted her to shapeshift often so the players could see it (well, or at least imagine seeing it) I didn't want that to create any kind of confusion involving a second stat-block. So she has one stat-block, one hit-point total, and her shapeshifting is basically cosmetic, which is fine with me. I added the coin-toss to make her shifting random. I didn't want it to happen every round, but I thought it might be harder to remember instructions like "every third round."

The association of the word "cougar" with older women who want to date younger men led me to the idea of the lover's wail. I probably wouldn't have thought of that if I'd chosen a different cat, but I'm glad I did. It reminds me of some of the early D&D monsters who kidnapped party members by making them fall in love. That's the worst-case outcome here, but a normal failure just means that you'll spend all your downtime with your new cougar-wife, and if you're lucky, she'll actually join your party as an NPC ally. Danny Prescott edited this entire series.
Were-cougar: Init +3; Atk claw +3 melee (1d4+1) or bite +4 melee (1d6+2) or wail (special); AC 13; HD 3d10; MV 40' or climb 20'; Act 1d20; SP shapeshifter, pounce, lover's wail; SV Fort +3, Ref +3, Will +4; AL C; Crit DN/d4.
A were-cougar is a shapeshifter with two forms. In her human form she appears as a woman on the cusp of old age wearing simple local dress. She seems feisty and self-reliant. In her lion form, she has a slightly demonic air, pointier ears, shaggier fur, sharper claws (she uses identical statistics regardless of form).
A were-cougar is the implacable enemy of the nearest town, and may treat PCs as allies if they are outcasts there. She collects husbands and has a harem of 1d8 local men in her den at all times. She is not particularly jealous, and allows her men to take second wives, so long as she retains their primary loyalty. There is a 50% chance the were-cougar is first encounter her in lion form.
If a were-cougar makes the first attack of combat she will use her lover's wail; otherwise she attacks normally. Thereafter, she will alternate attacks between claw, bite and wail, pouncing when possible. Each round she doesn't pounce flip a coin; if heads she uses her move to shift between her human and cougar forms. A were-cougar prefers to use her claw and bite attacks against female opponents and against males who pass their Luck check against her wail. If every living male opponent has been affected by her wail she will return to her den and any new husbands will follow.
Shapeshifter: A were-cougar takes half damage from ordinary weapons. She counts as unholy for lawful clerics. The were-cougar can shift between her human and cougar forms as a move action.
Pounce: A were-cougar can pounce to gain an extra d20 attack die and attack with any two attack options, i.e. claw and bite, bite and wail, or wail and claw. The were-cougar can only pounce if she surprises its victims, attacks first due to initiative, or has taken no damage since her previous attack.
Lover's wail: A were-cougar sings a haunting, wordless song, like a lonely woman singing to her cat. A were-cougar's wail affects the male opponent with the highest Personality score who hasn't been affected yet today (in case of tie, she targets the opponent with the highest Luck score from among those with highest Personality). The affected target rolls a Luck check to see how he is affected.
  • Half Luck score or lower - The were-cougar falls in love with the target and stops combat immediately. She will offer to marry the target and join the them as an NPC who mostly follows his instructions. She will follow him anywhere in order to live her life beside him.
  • Luck score or lower - The were-cougar is the most beautiful woman the target ever saw, but he knows it is just not to be.
  • Higher than Luck score - The target falls in love with the were-cougar and retires from combat while trying to talk his friends into stopping their attack. The target spends his downtime between adventures living with the were-cougar as her lover in her den. He refuses to go on journeys that would take him too far away from his lover.
  • Higher than double Luck score - The target falls deeply in love with the were-cougar, and fights to the death to prevent anyone else from attacking her. The target retires from adventuring to marry the were-cougar and live with her forever in her den.

Demonic crit: A were-cougar rolls 1d4 on the demon crit table.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

GFA18 - Wampus Cougar

The wampus cougar is my next-to-last mountain lion variation for the 2018 Gongfarmer's Almanac. It's physically the weakest mountain lion, but also the most deadly. The wampus cat (which originates in Cherokee myth, but was also adopted into American folklore as a fearsome critter) is supposed to have a voice that either kills or foretells death. It's also supposed to shapeshift into a woman, but I decided that for gaming purposes, it was more interesting to separate out that ability, resulting in the were-cougar. 
The various "wail" abilities I gave to the cactus, wampus, and were-cougars ended up being modeled on this one, which was in turn modeled on the folklore. I decided I wasn't quite willing to kill a character for failing a Luck check, but that I was totally willing to kill a character who rolled over double their Luck score. I also thought it would be fun if there was some reward for surviving really well. I initially thought about giving all the mountain lions their own wails, but ultimately decided it only fit with a few of them. Danny Prescott edited all the mountain lions, and provided art for this one.
Art by Danny Prescott 
Wampus cougar: Init +0; Atk claw +2 melee (1d4) or bite +3 melee (1d6) or wail (special); AC 10; HD 3d6; MV fly 20'; Act 1d20; SP ghostly body, pounce, mourner's wail; SV Fort +1, Ref +1, Will +3; AL N; Crit U/d8.
The wampus cougar is smaller than other mountain lions, with longer, silver-white fur that seems to shine in the dark. It floats rather than walks, stalking completely silently, and appears almost unreal as it moves. The sight or sound of a wampus cougar is widely believed to be an omen foretelling death.
If the wampus cougar makes the first attack of combat, it will use its mourner's wail; otherwise it attacks normally. Thereafter, it will alternate attacks between claw, bite, and wail, pouncing when possible.
Ghostly body: The wampus cougar takes half damage from ordinary weapons. It counts as unholy for neutral clerics and lives halfway between our world and the spirit realm.
Pounce: The wampus cougar can pounce to gain an extra d20 attack die and attack with any two different attacks, i.e. claw and bite, bite and wail, wail and claw. The wampus cougar can only pounce if it surprises its victims, attacks first due to initiative, or has taken no damage since its previous attack.
Mourner's wail: The wampus cat caterwauls like a mother crying for lost children. The wampus cougar's wail affects the opponent with the lowest Luck score who hasn't been affected yet today (in case of tie, it targets the opponent with the lowest hit points from among those with lowest Luck). The affected target rolls a Luck check to see how they're affected:

  • Half Luck score or lower - Permanently gain 1 hit point
  • Luck score or lower - The target faints and immediately comes to. Lose 1 hit point and fall prone
  • Higher than Luck score - The target loses half her current hit points (rounded up) and falls prone
  • Higher than double Luck score - The target drops to 0 hit points and begin bleeding out

Undead crit: A wampus cougar rolls 1d8 on the undead crit table.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

GFA18 - Sabretooth Cougar

My fourth mountain lion variation for the 2018 Gongfarmer's Almanac is the sabretooth cougar. The biggest changes to my basic mountain lion template is that the sabretooth is giant, so I decided to take advantage of the DCC rules for turning it into a giant. It gets an extra Hit Dice and its die-size goes up by +1d on the dice-chain. Its claw attack goes up by +1d damage, and its bite attack goes up by +2d (because, c'mon it has sabre-teeth). Like other giants, it gets a d24 Action Dice, crits on rolls of 20 or higher, and uses the Giants' crit table. 
I think I'm probably espousing a general philosophy of how to treat dinosaurs and megafauna by writing this. I'm definitely advocating that other DCC authors follow my lead and add a Crit entry to the end of the standard stat-block. Most of the time, it just saves having to cross-reference your monster entry against that table of crits by monster type and HD. Sometimes though, like this, having the entry come standard makes it easier to show that a monster has an unusual crit. Danny Prescott edited the entire mountain lion series, and he provided the art for this entry.
Art by Danny Prescott
Sabretooth cougar: Init +3; Atk claw +4 melee (1d6+1) or bite +6 melee (1d10+2); AC 16; HD 4d10; MV 40' or climb 20'; Act 1d24; SP pounce, crit on 20+; SV Fort +4, Ref +3, Will +1; AL N; Crit G/d4.
The sabretooth cougar is megafauna from an earlier era. It stands a foot taller and a foot longer than other mountain lions with orange fur and a tawny belly. Its most notable features are its namesake foot-long fangs, which give it a vicious bite.
If the sabretooth cougar makes the first attack of combat it will pounce; otherwise it attacks normally. Thereafter, it will alternate attacks between claw and bite, pouncing when possible.
Pounce: The sabretooth cougar can pounce to gain an extra d24 attack die and attack that round with both claw and bite. The sabretooth cougar can only pounce if it surprises its victims, attacks first due to initiative, or has taken no damage since its previous attack.
Giant crit: The sabretooth cougar uses d24 action dice to attack, and crits on any roll of 20+. Its crits roll 1d4 on the giant crit table.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

GFA18 - Mountain Lion Cougar

The third mountain lion variation in my series for the 2018 Gongfarmer's Almanac is the mountain-lion cougar, which is the baseline monster I altered to make all the other variations. It's the simplest and probably the easiest to fight.
Danny Prescott edited all the entries in this series. Clayton Williams provided the art for this one. Somehow the black bands on this cougar make me think of an 80s workout music video.
Art by Clayton Williams.
Mountain-lion cougar: Init +1; Atk claw +2 melee (1d4) or bite +3 melee (1d6); AC 13; HD 3d8; MV 40' or climb 20'; Act 1d20; SP pounce; SV Fort +3, Ref +3, Will +1; AL N; Crit M/d8.
Mountain-lion cougars look like giant house cats, standing 3' tall at the shoulder and measure 7' from nose to tail. They have short tawny fur that turns white around their mouths and down their bellies. Their ears and nose are outlined in black, as are their paws and the tips of their tails.
If the mountain-lion cougar makes the first attack of combat, it will pounce; otherwise it attacks normally. Thereafter, it will alternate attacks between claw and bite, pouncing when possible.
Pounce: The mountain-lion cougar can pounce to gain an extra d20 attack die and attack that round with both a claw and bite. The mountain-lion cougar can only pounce if it surprises its victims, attacks first due to initiative, or has taken no damage since its previous attack.

Monday, December 10, 2018

GFA18 - Cactus Cougar

My second mountain lion variation for the 2018 Gongfarmer's Almanac is the cactus cougar. Like the ball-tailed cougar, this is a semi-naturalistic take on an American folkloric creature. My idea to give these monsters pre-programmed attack strategies is a little bit easier to see in this one. If it attacks first in the first round of combat, it starts with the drunkard's wail, otherwise it starts with body slam, then bites, then wails, etc. If it gets the chance to pounce, it will just do whichever two attacks come next in the programmed order.
The cactus cougar is also the first example of the "wail" attack I thought of. Like a dragon's breath, "wails" hit their targets automatically, but you get some kind of defensive roll to protect yourself. Except instead of a saving throw, you get to use DCC's Luck roll mechanic, which is basically "roll under your Luck score or bad things happen to you." In this case, I wanted more outcomes, adding something like a critical success and something like a critical failure. I initially thought about having them turn up on rolls of 1 or 20, but I decided that I wanted them to occur a bit more often, and I wanted to differentiate them a bit from DCC's official "crits" and "fumbles." Note that any character with a Luck score 2 or higher can potentially get the best outcome, but ONLY characters with Luck 9 or lower can get the worst - at Luck 10 and above, it's simply not possible to roll more than twice your Luck score (unless something forces you to roll a d24 instead of a d20, I guess). 
Danny Prescott edited this piece and the others in this series. Again, I want to point out how invaluable his help was in making sure my instructions for pouncing would make sense to people who aren't me. Clayton Williams did the art for this one.
Art by Clayton Williams 
Cactus cougar: Init +1; Atk bodyslam +3 melee (1d6 + spikes) or bite +2 melee (1d6) or wail (special); AC 16; HD 3d8; MV 40' or 20' climb; Act 1d20; SP pounce, spikes, drunkard's wail; SV Fort +3, Ref +3, Will +1; AL N; Crit M/d8.
The cactus cougar has green tinged fur and six-inch quills growing at intervals across its body. Although as agile as any other mountain lion, it has a clumsy, staggering walk and a distended belly.
If the cactus cougar makes the first attack of combat it will use its drunkard's wail; otherwise it attacks normally. Thereafter, it will alternate attacks as follows: bodyslam, bite, and wail, pouncing when possible. If the cactus cougar puts every living opponent to sleep it will eat the sleeping target with the lowest Luck score then return to its den.
Pounce: The cactus cougar can pounce to gain an extra d20 attack die that round and attack with any two different options, i.e. body-slam and bite, bite and wail, or wail and body-slam. The cactus cougar can only pounce if it surprises its victims, attacks first due to initiative, or has taken no damage since its previous attack.
Spikes: A target hit by the cactus cougar's bodyslam, or who deals melee damage to it, is stabbed by several of its spikes. The target makes a DC 13 Fort save against poison. Upon success they take 1 damage; otherwise they take 1d4 damage and will be affected the next time the cactus cougar wails.
Drunkard's wail: The cactus cougar caterwauls like a drunkard singing on the walk home. Affected targets each roll Luck checks to determine how they are affected. If the cactus cougar wails during the first round of combat it affects the target who drank alcohol most recently, otherwise its wail affects all targets who failed their poison save since the last time it wailed:
  • Half Luck score or lower -The water in the target’s canteen becomes very fine mescal or tequila.
  • Luck score or lower - The target is drunk, and has a terrible hangover in the morning.
  • Higher than Luck score - The target falls asleep, and for 1 hour cannot be woken except by taking damage.
  • Higher than double Luck score - The target falls asleep, and for 8 hours cannot be woken except by magic.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

GFA18 - Ball Tailed Couger

This 2018 Gongfarmer's Almanac piece is the first in a series of mountain lion variations. I started with a base monster, and then for each variation, tried to come up with a couple really basic ways that it would be different. The ball-tailed cougar, my naturalistic variation on the folkloric ball-tailed cat, is relatively simple. I decided that DCC's dwarven shield-bash mechanic would work pretty well for the tail-slap attack, so that d14 Action Die listed below is dedicated to only be use for tail-slapping.
Danny Prescott edited this series, and he volunteered art for this entry. He was a huge help in making sure the text related to the "pounce" ability made sense. His suggestions made my writing much clearer. I wanted to try out something where each of the mountain lions has a very predictable series of attacks, and a special ability that gives them an extra attack under certain circumstances. The predictable attacks potentially allow the players to strategize how to best to fight these things. In particular, preventing the cougar from winning initiative or going an entire round without taking damage makes it MUCH easier to defeat by denying it the chance to use its pounce ability.
Having a predictable order of attacks is also supposed to take some weight off the referee. I'm much more comfortable in the role of "neutral arbiter" than I am in the role of "adversary trying to kill your characters" so having pre-ordained tactics makes it easier for me to run the fight without either feeling uncomfortable about being "too hard" on my players or feeling as though I'm improperly pulling my punches. (Demanding that the claw attack be used every other round also solves a head-scratcher on many monster sheets, which is that if the judge is choosing which attacks to use, why would you ever use the claw attack when the bite attack is clearly better? In this case, you do so because the instructions say that's how this animal behaves.) Pre-programmed tactics can also potentially make different monsters FEEL different by making them do different things, even if their stats are pretty much the same. Programmed tactics might be better for animals than for intelligent opponents, although I also like the "video-game boss monster" feel that you get from knowing that your adversary is running through a set list of moves.
Art by Danny Prescott
Ball-tailed cougar: Init +1; Atk claw +2 melee (1d4) or bite +3 melee (1d6) or tail-slap +2 melee (1d6); AC 13; HD 3d8; MV 40' or climb 20'; Act 1d20 + 1d14; SP pounce, tail-slap; SV Fort +3, Ref +3, Will +1; AL N; Crit M/d8.
The ball-tailed cougar has a double-long tail that ends in a rounded club like an ankylosaurus or manticore.
If the ball-tailed cougar makes the first attack of combat, it will pounce; otherwise it attacks normally. Thereafter, it will alternate attacks between claw and tail-slap and bite and tail-slap, pouncing when possible.
Pounce: The ball-tailed cougar can pounce to gain an extra d20 attack die that round to attack with both its claws and bite. The ball-tailed cougar can only pounce if it surprises its victims, attacks first due to initiative, or has taken no damage since its previous attack.
Tail-slap: Each round, the ball-tailed cougar can make an attack with its tail using a d14 attack die.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

GFA18 - Mountain Lion Varieties & Signs

My next batch of Gongfarmer's Almanac 2018 pieces are a series of related monsters for Weird West adventures in DCC. My initial inspiration for these was the Pokemon variations meme of drawing multiple versions of the same Pokemon in a way that resembles natural genetic variation. So this is my attempt to create slightly naturalistic monsters out of some famous "fearsome critters" of American folklore. Danny Prescott edited this batch of entries.
Travelers in the western half of North America know to fear the mountain lions that stalk the rocky Cordillera region from British Columbia down to Jalisco, and are even found occasionally back East. Mountain lions are solitary predators who follow their prey for some time and often surprise unwary victims. Mountain lions look like giant house cats, standing 3' tall at the shoulder and measure 7' from nose to tail. They have short tawny fur that turns white around their mouths and down their bellies. Their ears and nose are outlined in black, as are their paws and the tips of their tails.
If PCs encounter a mountain lion, roll 1d6 to determine the type: (1) ball-tailed cougar; (2) cactus cougar; (3) mountain-lion cougar; (4) sabretooth cougar; (5) wampus cougar; (6) were-cougar.
If the characters all stop attacking and throw down all their rations, kill an animal or person for the lion to eat, or allow the lion to eat someone who has already died, any mountain lion will take its meal and retreat to its den immediately.
Signs: Some characters are skilled trackers and can discover the presence of wilderness creatures before they're encountered. Judges may allow their players to encounter clues about the identity of local monsters before encountering them directly. Use the portents below if players are potentially likely to encounter a mountain lion. A character hearing a distant wail as a sign of a nearby lion will be the first character targeted by the wail during combat. I recommend playing Ratatat's "Wildcat" quietly on repeat from the time the characters encounter a sign (or roll initiative for combat) until the end of the encounter.
Ball-tailed cougar: The PC hears a sound like a child bouncing a ball, over and over and over.
Cactus cougar: The PC smells tequila in the wind and hears caterwauling like a drunkard singing on the walk home. The character who drank alcohol most recently is now drunk again and can feel the hangover coming already.
Mountain-lion cougar: The PC smells ammonia in the wind, and for a moment everything goes silent as the birds stop singing and insects quit their buzzing. After a short period the natural sounds resume.
Sabretooth cougar: The PC feels a sudden chill in the air, like breeze blowing in off a glacier, and hears what sounds like distant thunder.
Wampus cougar: A cloud crosses the sun and throws the PC into shadow. The PC hears a caterwaul like a mother's cry for lost children. The character with the lowest Luck and lowest hit points faints and immediately comes to after losing 1 hit point.
Were-cougar: The PC hears a woman singing. He can't make out the words, but it sounds like a lonely woman singing about her cat. The male character with the highest Personality and highest Luck is sure the singer is the most beautiful woman in the world.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Dungeons & Decorators as a #3BookRPG

Earlier this year, FM Geist from Ziggurat of Unknowing started a meme: Choose 3 books to act as your Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual.
I decided to try making a #3BookRPG for my speculative Dungeons & Decorators campaign. The point of a #3Book RPG list is emphatically not to be a full Appendix N of inspirational literature, but to identify the core that you hope to build on.

Player's Handbook - Heirloom Modern by Hollister & Porter Hovey

Dungeon Master's Guide - Inception by Christopher Nolan
Monster Manual - The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey
Your characters are collectors and thieves. You want the most beautiful relics of the time before, the masterpieces and artifacts with craftsmanship unmatched by anyone in the present day. Your goals are to preserve, possess, and display. Almost as much as you want to own precious things, you want to show them off in curated tableaus to impress and outdo your friends.

The treasures you seek are locked up in houses, the forgotten houses, shuttered wings, and unused rooms in the corners of great estates. The original owners are all dead or dying, grown up or moved on. These treasures aren't just objects, they're memories given form. To own them is to control their power. To steal them is to take something from the minds and hearts of the families that owned them, something that will change them even if it's never missed, even if they had long since shut the door.

These houses are all haunted. They are full of the memories of the people who used to live there, and the ghosts who follow you and your friends everywhere, waiting for you to enter the dead places where they can come back to life. The houses themselves are almost alive now. They've grown and twisted beyond their original floorplans. Their attics are like warehouses, their basements like caves, their drawing rooms are cathedrals, and there are monsters in every closet, beneath every floorboard, under every bed. There are many perils in these halls, and many ways to die.

Honorable Mentions - Against a Dark Background by Iain Banks, The Bohemian Manifesto by Lauren Stover, The Children's Home by Charles Lambert, The Glass Town Game by Catherynne Valente & Rebecca Green, The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, The Heap House Trilogy by Edward Carey, House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec, Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey, The Porcelain Thief by Huan Hsu

Monday, November 26, 2018

House Rule - Signs & Encounters

Recently, I decided I want to start doing something new when write encounter tables. I want to divide my tables into signs and encounters. These are paired, so that each sign is connected to a specific encounter. Signs have odd numbers, encounters have evens.
(So sign 1 is paired with encounter 2, sign 3 is connected to encounter 4, etc.)
Encounters are typically monsters or environmental hazards. They're things that are dangerous, that could damage or kill a character. Other kinds of encounters might be possible, but this is where my process is right now. Signs are meant to create a sense of foreboding. They might be fairly direct clues about the connected encounter, or they might be ominous, ambiguous portents of forthcoming danger.
(If the encounter is the Demogorgon from Stranger Things, the sign might be all the lights flickering on and off. If the encounter is an Agent from The Matrix, the sign might be a black cat that keeps crossing your path.)
A sign ...
The first time I roll on the encounter table, I'm not going to distinguish between signs and encounters, I'm only looking to see which connected pair I got. The first roll always produces the sign, and the characters experience whatever warning they're going to get.
The second time I roll on the table, I'm not going to distinguish between pairs. I'm only looking to see whether I got sign or encounter. If I got sign, then the character experience the same sign as before. This can happen as many times as I keep rolling sign. Hopefully, he repetition increases the suspense and foreboding. You know something's coming. If I got encounter, then the characters meet whichever monster is associated with the initial sign.
After the characters finally experience an encounter, I start over, so the next roll always produces another sign.
(You could also be less forgiving than I've described here, and let the first roll give you a surprise encounter. I think that's fair. The dungeon is a mythic underworld; the wilderness howls. Sometimes the only warning of impending danger you get is the knowledge that you've entered a dangerous place. My hope though, is that the procedure I've described might produce more narrative satisfaction, by always foreshadowing encounters before they occur.)
... leads to an encounter.
I'm hoping that this approach will help create a world with an active environment, full of strange sights and noises and portents. It has already forced me to focus my encounter tables. Instead of just listing 20 vaguely-related monsters, I find myself narrowing down to 4 or 6 that really help define the feel of the region.
Something like this approach could also work with an overloaded encounter die. These dice typically have two entries for lights going out and magical effects ending, which are typically treated as representing torches and lanterns. You could treat the first such roll as producing a warning - torches flicker or dim, magical effects start glitching and fading. The next time the overloaded encounter die comes back to that pair, you have a 50% chance of another warning (just as the procedure I suggested gives a 50% chance of a repeated sign), and a 50% chance that the lights go out and the magic stops. Just as with my procedure, the goal would be to create narrative tension and satisfaction. The thing is foreshadowed, later the thing happens. In between those times, the thing follows you, stalks you, haunts you. When it happens, it's not a surprise, it's a grim certainty. Or anyway, that's what I'm hoping for.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Session Report - Descend into Brimstone - 2 Nov 2018

Archibald (innkeeper, 1st level Zombie)
played by American John

Nell (innkeeper, 2nd level Warrior)
played by Todd

Chaus Hussar (0th level cavalryman)
played by Peter

Detective Guillermo "the Bull" (man-at-arms)
NPC ally

Caspar, Melchior, and Abendego (magicians)
Salma and Penelope (acolytes)
NPC ... allies?
Session 7
The small pilgrimage arrived at the demon-shrine, an ancient pueblo building inside a large cave. The crowd of spectators stopped a few steps behind the adventurers, and whispered amongst themselves about the site before them. Confronted with the shrine, standing on the very doorstep of a human sacrifice, Archibald, Chaus Hussar, and Nell felt indecisive. Nell turned to the nearest Mason, Abendego, "Now, remind me again why we're doing' this sacrifice? What are we lookin' to accomplish?" Abendego explained that the architecture of the West is boring and undeveloped, Hezzemuth, as a queen of the ants, is sure to be a builder, certain to build great things, and that he and his colleagues want to be part of it. Melchior leaned over to chime in that the sisters had promised them that Hezzemuth would reward them with special demon's eyes.
Nell took all this in, then asked "Now, remind me again who these sisters are?" Melchior repeated the story of how they found the shrine while looking for interesting architecture in the Maw, and that in the shrine they met the two Mexican sisters who inducted them into Hezzemuth's cult. When the Illuminati sent an assassin from back east to kill them, the sisters somehow foresaw the assassin, and gave the Freemasons the advice they needed to get the drop on the assassin and capture him.
Nell, Archibald, and Chaus Hussar debated what to do. They settled on the idea that it would be like going to see a Vaudeville act at a music hall, and decided to go ahead and enjoy the show. Nell still felt conflicted, and called back to the crowd to explain that the Masons wouldn't be performing the sacrifice themselves, it would be the sisters ("The beautiful sisters!" chimed in Abendego) but this information did not deter the crowd.
The adventurers entered the shrine. They saw a giant pool of water, yellow with sulfur, and smelled brimstone in the air. They saw the giant soldier ant that'd killed Archibald, lurking at the far back of the room. The Masons led them past the pool through a doorway to the right, into a large hall with a high ceiling, held aloft by wooden pillars. At the front of the room was a stone altar with a man bound and gagged to the stone. He was flanked by two beautiful Mexican sisters and two stone sculptures of Hezzemuth, marble images that cast her as a Greek goddess holding tools like the plumb bob, the ruler, the triangle. The crowd filed in, and all eyes were on the bound man. They edged to the back of the room, trying to stay as far from the bloodshed as possible. ("Ohhh, you mean this is COLLEGE college!")
The Freemasons took their place at the front of the room, standing around the altar. The sisters, Salma and Penelope, addressed the crowd. "Ladies and gentlemen! Tonight, you will witness a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! The queen, Hezzemuth the Painmistress is coming to earth!" While the crowd was in awe of the sisters, Archibald, Nell, and Chaus Hussar whispered among themselves. They saw another door on the back right-hand side of the room. They crept over, sidling between the other onlookers, and pulled the door open just far enough to slip through. Chaus Hussar went ahead while Archibald and Nell stayed to guard the door.
Suddenly, chaos erupted in a matter of moments. One member of the crowd came forward and threw back the hood cloaking his face - it was Detective Guillermo "the bull"! "Tonight?" he yelled, "Tonight you sons of bitches are going to pay for your crimes!" He fired his handgun at the sisters, but only hit the wall behind them. In the other room, Chaus Hussar entered a dusty, disused space with another stone altar and another pair of statues, these showing Hezzemuth as a cruel smiling woman with razor teeth, licking blood from a dagger, and holding a whip, a flail, and a sword. As he stepped forward to investigate, he heard the noise from the hall ... and stepped into a bear trap. Nell heard Chaus Hussar scream in pain and ran through the door to help, shouting "Save Guillermo!" over her shoulder to Archibald. The Freemasons rushed forward to detain the detective, and Caspar stabbed him in the shoulder. Archibald lurched forward, but his new zombie body was too slow. Salma made beckoning motions with her hands, and said in a powerful voice "Come now detective, you don't want to hurt us." Guillermo stopped struggling against the Masons, his arms went limp, his eyes went blank. In a voice like talking in his sleep he said "I will come to you now. I don't want to hurt you." He walked to the front of the room with Archibald too slow behind him, and Penelope slit the detective's throat before plunging her knife into the bound man's chest.
There was a thunderclap and blinding flame as a demon tore through the wall of reality and into the room. The crowd panicked and tried to rush for the exit, shoving and jostling in a frightened herd, as Archibald backpedaled for the door his friends had disappeared into. Hezzemuth laughed and laughed, lashing out into the crowd again and again with her whip. Each time it cracked another onlooker was torn apart, their bodies practically exploding under the force of the demon queen's wrath. The last thing Archibald saw as he backed through the door was the Freemasons' eyes suddenly glowing with the light of hellfire. "My eyes!" they shouted, "I can truly see!"
In the dusty room, it took Nell and Chaus Hussar several tries to free his leg from the bear trap. They froze when they heard the commotion in the other room, and Nell drew a bead on the door as Archibald came through. She wiped her brow and holstered her pistol. "Mr Archibald!" she scolded, "I nearly shot you!" They could hear Hezzemuth's whip cracking and her horrible laughter as the remaining members of the crowd screamed in fear and agony. After getting free and wrapping a bandage around his leg, Chaus Hussar put the bear trap in his bag and moved to get a closer look at the altar and its horrid statues. Archibald noticed that the real Hezzemuth looked much more similar to these gruesome visages than she did to the neo-classical statues in the main hall.
Chaus Hussar tried to topple one of the statues, hoping it might somehow break Hezzemuth's power, but he had to rock it on its base to make it move, and it fell forward on him instead, pinning him to the floor. At the same time, the other statue came to life and moved toward the trapped man. Archibald touched his demon ore necklace, the one that bound his soul to his dead body, and projected his own ghost temporarily into the room. Archibald's un-dead flesh was grey, his posture poor, his movements slow and jerky - but the ghost that appeared was like an idealized version of him as he'd been in life, and his flesh fell to the floor like a discarded cloak as the ghost emerged. He tangled with the statue, distracted and passing through it as Nell worked to free Chaus Hussar. As soon as she got him out, the both set the statue back upright, and the one Archibald was fighting abruptly reverted to perfect stillness.
The sounds from the other room had quieted, so the three decided to make a break for it. When they re-entered the hall, they saw the soldier ant blocking the far door and a few survivors cowering against the back wall amidst a charnelscape of severed limbs and spilled blood. Archibald picked up a severed arm. The demon Hezzemuth stared at Nell. "Wouldst thou join me, Sweet Nell?" the demon's voice boomed, "Wouldst thou become my disciple?" Archibald threw the arm over the ant's head into the other room, and the great beast turned to follow the snack. Nell turned to the survivors "Get on now! This here's your chance!" They heard a splash as the ant charged into the sulfurous pool. The friends and the few survivors ran for the door, and found the entry room completely empty with no sign of the giant ant. They felt confused, but didn't stop to investigate the source of their good fortune, but rushed onward, back through the Maw, back to the elevator to the Gallows. "You know," said Archibald, "I'm getting tired of giant ants." The others nodded in agreement as they trudged.
It was evening as the group finally made their way to the surface. A few others must have escaped ahead of them, because everyone in town, from the elevator operator onward, seemed to be aware of what had transpired. The bartender at the Gallows offered the a round of stiff drinks. "Shoulda known that you all was the real heroes in this town," she said, commiserating with Nell. "Them Freemasons musta bamboozled us all somehow. I guess them preachers was right about that demon, tryin'a talk some sense into us." Archibald contemplated his drink. "Yes, and to think, it only took dozens of deaths to realize human sacrifice is wrong."
After their drinks, Chaus Hussar suggested going to rob the Freemason's hotel room, and Archibald and Nell agreed. The hotel manager said "Of course, I could never watch someone rob my customers, no matter how odious they are," then unlocked the room door and walked away. They found some spare clothes, and most importantly, the three Masons' spellbooks. One book contained a spell to save a person from falling, another a spell to help read other magical writing, and the third spell to inscribe magical runes. Chaus Hussar decided to try to learn magic, and wanted to keep two of the books. The group agreed that they could probably trade the final book to Pemberton Nimby in exchange for something made from the fossil they'd brought him. Nell mentioned she might like to get out of town for awhile, maybe stay away from the Maw and look for adventure somewhere else. She remembered a fairy tale she'd heard as a girl, the story of the Gold Soul Mine where one day all the miners vanished and all the townspeople left, and only their ghosts still worked the mines...
demon eyesight x3 (effects TBD)
stolen spellbooks x3 (Feather Fall, Read Magic, Runic Alphabet - Mortal)
Guillermo "the Bull" (sacrificed to demon)
unnamed sacrificial human (sacrificed to demon)
about 15 spectators from the Gallows (sacrificed BY demon)
4 XP for participating in sacrifice/summoning
1 XP for bear trap
1 XP for living statues
1 XP for giant soldier ant
1 XP for robbing Freemasons
Total: 9 XP for Archibald and Nell, flat 5 XP for Chaus Hussar for finishing funnel
Running graveyard (and session of death)
Detective Guillermo "the Bull" the NPC Mexican police-captain (7), Bjornk the hunter (6), Meriwether the 1st level Cleric (5), Archibald the 1st level Thief (3), Officer Shia "the Beef" the NPC Mexian police-officer (2), Daniel the plumber (2), Officer Benicio "the Bull" the NPC Mexican police-officer (2), Luther the factory-hand (2), Jed the miner (1), Henry the huckster (1), Lilly the clerk (1), Bill the livery-stabler (1), Harry the butcher (1), Rusty the auctioneer (1)
My main goal going into this session was to preserve my players' ability to decide how they would interact with the human sacrifice / demon summoning scenario. I was willing to let them be spectators, participants, or opponents, but I didn't want to force them into any of those roles. By that measure, I felt like this session was a success. I think a couple of my players felt bad afterward for having take a little while to decide what they wanted their characters to do, but from my perspective, the important thing was that they weren't forced (or rushed) into doing anything they didn't want. And as I said, deciding they just wanted to watch the sacrifice and summoning was, from my perspective, a completely valid decision for them to make. 
I can recall a couple times as a player, including once when John was the ref, where what I really wanted to do was watch one monster fight another monster so I didn't have to fight either of them - and in retrospect, I can see that the judges were doing the same things I did here, kind of slow-rolling it and checking in often to make sure the players were still on-board with a spectator role in the scene. In fact, the one thing I wish I'd handled differently was the combat between Guillermo and the sisters (who, yes, were Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz). Again, I made decisions about what each of the NPCs was going to do, then had my players roll the dice. This was slower than me rolling the dice myself, but it didn't really constitute meaningful participation in the combat, I don't think. In retrospect, I wish I'd rolled for myself so I could have narrated a little faster, or assigned each player a faction (sisters, masons, and Guillermo) and let them control them fully. (Also, man!, that whole thing could have played out differently if Guillermo had hit someone during the surprise round, or not ended up last in the initiative order, or succeeded his saving throw against being charmed.)
This session felt like the end of one chapter and the start of something new for the campaign. I think my players want to branch out. The goal of the megadungeon mine is to be the default campaign activity. If you can't think of what to do, you go down into the mine, and you find something that sends you on a quest. Then you complete the quest, and unless that turned up new leads, go back into the mine for something else. In the original BPBM campaign where I was a player, finding demon ore often served as the reason for a quest, because we had to find someone who could turn it into a magic item, and then do them a favor. The other way we got embroiled in a quest was finding a letter from a hostage, which eventually led to us mounting a rescue. I think my players liked going on the quest for Nimby, and want more of that sandbox style play. And I think they want to see more of the world. This has got me thinking about the limits of a procedurally generated dungeon, how large it can be, and how much variety it needs to stay interesting. The next place they're off to is Goodberry Monthly's "Goldsoul Mine" dungeon.
I liked Peter's idea to go rob the Freemason's hotel room. We rolled randomly for the spells there at the table. At the end of the night, Peter also rolled to find his wizard spells, and got Color Spray, Sleep, and Spider Climb, the lucky devil. Each time my players have found a magical item, I've had to decide what it does. When they trade the spellbook to get back the fossils, I've decided that they're going to turn into a dragon!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

GFA18 - Scribing Runes in MCC

This is the last of my Gongfarmer's Almanac 2018 articles that deal with Mutant Crawl Classics. (Don't worry, it's not the last one overall, coming next are some materials for DCC Westerns.) This time, I was thinking about ways to bring a little more DCC magic into MCC. In my image of the Terra AD setting, technology takes the form of discrete technological artifacts, but it also takes the form of sites and locations. Some of these are deadly, acting like traps, but others represent powers that characters can use (and re-use) if they can get to the right place. Ideally, there should be multiple "right places" for any given effect, but you can't just activate any effect from any where.
I really want to give a shout out to Karim for the great art accompanying this piece. Because he was volunteering his time and talent to GFA18, he would have been totally within his rights to simply look at my draft and then draw whatever he wanted inspired by it. Karim when above and beyond though; he essentially volunteered to give me the true commission experience. He drew preliminary sketches, revised them based on my comments, check the revisions with me, then made the final versions. All the pieces went through some revision, but this one went through the most. I had described something a little like David Langford's "blit" where a parrot-like image drives people insane, except ... what I described didn't really work visually. Karim came up with the idea of the parrot as a mechanical pop-up, and the effect as a beam, and it's fantastically weird, and it just ... works. (Plus check out the gross detail on the disintegrating guy! It's off the hook!)
Keith Garrett edited this piece, as he did the others in this series. You might have recognized the narrative example from my previous article as being lifted from Star Trek First Contact. The example here is probably harder to recognize. It comes from Jasper Fford's novel Shades of Grey. The whole community structure and set-up of that novel would, I think, make for a pretty good entry-level scenario for MCC.
Art by Karim
In a world without literacy, all writing seems like magic. Some writing is much more magical than others, however. Some writing issues commands that its viewers have to obey, even if they can't actually "read" it. The DCC spells runic alphabet (mortal) and runic alphabet (fey) represent a set of procedures that characters can memorize by rote in order to enact wetware-like effects without direct intervention by the patron AIs. The DCC spell make potion even provides a list of procedures characters can follow to issue wetware-like commands to themselves.
Characters can only learn runes one at a time, they can never memorize an entire runic alphabet at once. Characters learn a rune by making a technology roll, including their usual artifact check bonus. A character must make a technology roll equal to the rune's original minimum spellcheck in order to memorize it. Once a character has memorized a rune, they can inscribe it any time by making a technology roll equal to the rune's spell check. The rune's complexity is equal to twice its spell level (so mortal runes are complexity 2 and fey runes and potions are both complexity 6). If the alternative technology roll described earlier is used, then characters' technology die is also their spell check die, and can continue to improve even after they memorize the rune. If the bard class described earlier is used, bards roll +1d on technology rolls to learn and scribe runes. Most characters can memorize a number of runes equal to half their character level, while bards can memorize a number of runes equal to their level.
A rune might represent ancient machine code. Writing the code might issue a command-line instruction to a patron AI's satellite mainframe, and activating the rune might represent the satellite compiling and executing the code via the AI's operatives and resources planetside. Or, a rune might represent ancient logins, passwords, and database entries. Writing the rune might fill in a webform maintained by the nanites ambient in the atmosphere all over Terra A.D., and activating the rune might represent the nanites submitting the entry as a new row in a cloud database. Or, a rune might consist of images that exploit flaws in the image-processing centers of the human brain to produce almost unavoidable effects, as described by David Langford in his "blit" and "basilisk" stories. Learning the rune might represent learning to accurately reproduce the image without suffering its effects. Inscribing might consist of drawing this image, and activating it might represent fully revealing the image to its victim's visual cortex. Depending on the judge's interpretation, inscribing a rune might require access to a functioning ancient computer terminal, special paints or stencils to craft a nanite-readable barcode or QR code, or protective eyewear to shield the scribe's own optic nerve from the rune's effects.
Example: Jane has been press-ganged into leading Tommo and Violet into an abandoned ancient city to collect spoons and other artifacts. Near the edge of town, she spots an Ancient screen and keyboard, attached to a machine that accepts rectangular leaves and returns metal pebbles. First she types in the command to make the monitor display a particular shade of green that relieves the injuries she suffered on the road (make potion "healing", technology DC 18, Complexity 6). When Tommo and Violet demand that Jane repeat the procedure, she enacts the second part of her plan, typing in a command to display a coruscating pattern of red-and-green static that causes Tommo and Violet to hemorrhage to death on the spot (runic alphabet (fey) "pain", technology DC 16, Complexity 6). Jane returns home telling a story about how Tommo and Violet "were eaten by a carnivorous plant."

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Descend into Brimstone - Shrine to Hezzemuth Dungeon Map

The players in my current Black Powder, Black Magic game for DCC have finally visited the demon shrine I generated for level 1 of the Maw ... and they probably won't be coming back to it anytime soon. Now that it's been used at the table, I can post it here for everyone. You might remember the first room of this place, because it had a bear trap the characters skillfully avoided, and a giant soldier ant they less-skillfully didn't.
I generated this map using Mad Monks of Kwantoom. It felt a little small, and the pool of water in the first room was randomly assigned the magical property of teleportation, so I decided that diving into the pool teleports you to an alternate dimension, where the shrine is present but slightly different, and where the air is filled with sulfurous yellow fog. My players' explorations didn't reveal that detail at the table, but you might have a different experience.
I used the Black Powder, Black Magic vol. 4 zine to fill out the contents of the shrine. "Hezzemuth the Painmistress" is the demon associated with level 1 in the Maw. She's described as having 4 arms and the lower body of a bullet ant. Her shrine is supposed to have traps (random selection led to bear traps this time), and desecrating the shrine has consequences (random selection led to living statues). Rather than having only a chance of a "rare opportunity", I decided there definitely would be one, and I picked (and combined) "A chance to interrupt a human sacrifice." and "A chance to interrupt a demon summoning." rather than rolling randomly. My initial plan was that whenever the characters arrived, they'd have the chance to interrupt the sacrifice, although after they got a direct invitation, if they'd gone to do something else, the sacrifice would have happened in their absence.
Download here

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Session Report - Descend into Brimstone - 12 Oct 2018

Archibald (innkeeper, 1st level Zombie)
played by American John
Nell (innkeeper, 2nd level Warrior)
played by Todd
Bjornk (0th level hunter)
Chaus Hussar (0th level cavalryman)
played by Peter
Balthazar, Melchior, & Abendego (magicians)
NPC allies
Session 6
The townsfolk of Brimstone spent the week spreading the word about the impending demon sacrifice. The whole town was a titter with anticipation. "Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!" The priests and preachers of every church in Brimstone held extra services denouncing the sacrifice and exhorting their followers not to participate, but by Sunday morning, the Gallows was packed and the excited crowd spilled into the street, sipping beer and milling as they waited. At last, it was time. "LLLet's get ready to rumbleee!!!"
The crowd parted as the two adventuring parties promenaded into the Gallows bar. Onlookers clapped, they stomped their feet, they whistled, hooted, and cheered. The three Freemasons, Balthazar, Melchior, and Abendego led the way. Archibald and Sweet Nell followed close behind, basking in their momentary glory. "Now alright, finally we're gettin' the respect we deserve," Nell whispered to Archibald. The five ordered a round of drinks, and round-trip lift tickets. The bartender offered to comp them, but they insisted on this show of humility.
Out of the crowd, a hunter, Bjornk stepped forward. He'd come south from the pine barrens. He believed himself to be cursed, and thought that only tasting demon meat could save him. He approached Archibald and offered to purchase Ally, the alligator that had improbably ended up in Archibald's care. Archibald considered. "Yes," said the dead man, "Ally belongs with the living." Some time during the night, the sleepless, deathless Archibald had stolen back the darkstone necklace from Nell and regained control over his own unhallowed soul, his own undying body. He gave Bjornk Ally and bought him a drink. "I like you," said Archibald, "you stay close now."
Into the elevator the adventurers strode. They rode down into the depths alone, but they didn't remain alone long. The elevator worked tirelessly carrying more and more groups down from the bar. Each small crowd hustled to catch up to those ahead of them, until 30 or 40 onlookers were following in the adventurers' wake.
The group processed through the towering natural tunnels, arriving during their first hour at the waterfall where two streams joined to birth a larger underground river. Over the roar of the water, they heard clicking, and soon three giant insects were upon them, a giant ant, a giant centipede, and a cave cricket. The three masons cast baleful spells that looked like streams of black math being written across the air. Abendego wounded the cricket and Archibald rushed it, but it left over him. Nell shot at it but it leapt out of the way again, and her bullet nearly grazed Archibald. "Hey!" The masons cast their mathemagics again, and the centipede was cut in twain by long division, the cricket lost its legs and its life to subtraction. Bjornk sensed his moment of destiny and stepped forward, grasping Ally by the tale and slapping the ant in the face with the alligator. The ant shook off the blow and bit into Bjornk's stomach, tearing out his guts. The cursed hunter died in agony as the giant insect tore off one of his legs before gorging itself on his thigh. Nell shot the ant as it ate, then considered Bjornk's mutilated remains. "Well, no sense in lettin' him go to waste," she said as she broke his skull open with the enchanted, bloodthirsty dagger she'd taken from poor Merriwether. "Now Mister Archibald, I want no hard feelin's between us. You go on and eat now, I don't want you gettin' cranky with my later." Archibald knelt down beside Bjornk. "I like brains," he said and began tearing out handfuls to devour.
The crowd had been on tenterhooks throughout the fight, had gasped and murmured when Bjornk went down and was feasted on by insects, but the sight of Archibald eating Bjork's brain proved too much for them. (This is the NPC equivalent of the classic freshman discovery "Ohhh, you mean this is COLLEGE college!") Probably half the crowd left, their morale gone, backing away and rushing back to the elevator shaft. While Archibald ate, Nell searched Bjornk's body and took his compass, and Archibald retrieved the hunter's rifle, and wrapped his own alligator Ally around his neck like a stole as he stood up.
The cavalryman Chaus Hussar stepped forward from the crowd to walk closer to the adventurers. Far from being frightened, he felt invigorated. Melchior turned to Nell as they walked, "Cracking shot, that. You made short work of the bugger! This is exciting, isn't it? The two greatest teams of adventurers in Brimstone working together?" Nell thought of her first missed shot and Bjornk's death. "Now, for this human sacrifice, do we need to bring the human, or...?" Melchior looked over his shoulder back at the crowd. "Oh not to worry, we have the blighter already tied up at the shrine. Nasty chap. The Illuminati back east sent an assassin to do us in, nasty brutes! Lucky for us the sisters let us know he was coming. We got the drop on him, and ... well, now he's going to help us out summoning our demon."
Unfortunately, their conversation was interrupted their by the arrival of more giant insects. Curiously, it was another trio of ant, centipede, and cricket. Nell fired on the centipede, and her lucky shot exploded the venom sack inside the beast's mouth. The masons again called on their mathemagics to assail the insects. Melchior divided the wounded centipede into fractions, killing it. Balthazar pierced the ant with acute angles, and Chaus Hussar beheaded it with his cavalry sabre. The cricket leapt at Nell and bit her hat right off her head. Archibald fired at the cricket using Bjornk's rifle, and missed the insect, but put a hole in Nell's hat, just missing the top of her head. Nell slew the cricket, retrieved her hat, and went over to Archibald to scold him. "Now Mister Archibald, I told you I was sorry about earlier, you don't have to try to take my head off!" Archibald chuckled to himself, "Hehehe, sorry not-sorry."
With the crowd following behind, the group continued on their path. Chaus carried the giant ant's severed head by one antennae and offered it to Archibald as a way to gain entree with the in-crowd. Archibald accepted the head and began breaking it open, "I like brains." The continued through a section of mining tunnels, past the recently-abandoned YJMC mine. The Yellow Jacket miners trapped inside would have to wait for another day for rescue.
The mining tunnels widened out to become like subway tunnels. The group passed a pool of muddy, brackish water. Nell found the skeleton of a long-dead mule, with a single stick of old dynamite in its saddle bag. Archibald warned the crowd, "Don't drink! Poison water!"
The mining tunnels gave way to tile-lined corridors, and after another half hour of walking they saw it - the demon shrine to Hezzemuth...
1 stick of dynamite
Bjornk (devoured by ant)
2 XP for negotiating with Freemasons
2 XP for fist multi-insect encounter
2 XP for second multi-insect encounter
Total: 6 XP for Archibald and Nell, flat 5 XP for Chaus Hussar for starting funnel
Running graveyard (and session of death)
Bjornk the hunter (6), Meriwether the 1st level Cleric (5), Archibald the 1st level Thief (3), Officer Shia "the Beef" the NPC Mexian police-officer (2), Daniel the plumber (2), Officer Benicio "the Bull" the NPC Mexican police-officer (2), Luther the factory-hand (2), Jed the miner (1), Henry the huckster (1), Lilly the clerk (1), Bill the livery-stabler (1), Harry the butcher (1), Rusty the auctioneer (1)
I don't usually end my sessions on cliffhangers (in fact, one of my goals with both this campaign and my Barrowmaze / In the Shadow of Mount Rotten campaign has been to run self-contained sessions to accommodate slightly different groups of players each time) but there wasn't time to do more.
In a way, this session was like my worst-case scenario for an online game. The players set a goal for themselves, and I led them through two combats and four rooms, and basically, got them as far as the starting point of the adventure they wanted to go on. In retrospect, I wish I hadn't rolled for random encounters on the way to the shrine. The fact that both encounters were with identical monster sets, and that they used of most of our playing time, made it worse. 
Alternatively, if I did allow for random encounters, I wish I'd made it more interactive, so that the players didn't spend so much time watching MY magicians fight MY monsters. I had each player make the attack rolls for one of the Freemasons, but I wish I'd given each of them one Mason to control completely, so that they could have been more involved in the fights.
Why didn't we have much time? Most of my game sessions these days last about 2 hours. I want those 2 hours to be interesting and eventful. I've played in too many online game with other referees that were basically the nightmare scenario, one room, one combat, and ultimately one session because it was so boring that no one involved can quite work up the interest to play a second one. Usually, I've felt like it's gone pretty well. This week the time was a little tighter because we got a late start, and because we were introducing a new player into the group. I know Peter because he and I were fellow players in The Grand Tapestry's Urutsk campaign, but I don't think my other players had met him before. The social part of the session went well - so well, in fact, that I'm trying not to be too hard on myself that the game part felt short. But I don't want all my sessions to go like this, so it's important to use this post-mortem to understand what happened, and why, and how to avoid it in the future. If I had basically started the characters at the entrance to the shrine, then there wouldn't have been a cliffhanger, and the events of next session would have taken place this time. And if what had needed two sessions had taken place in one, then we could have gone on to something new and different a session sooner.
Why didn't I just handwave the travel, why did I roll for encounters along the way? I don't know exactly. It's hard to put into words, but I felt like I was following a particular ethos of D&D play. The danger of the dungeon doesn't care that you're on a mission. You can't just teleport to the adventure site, you have to get there, and you have to get back. The journey can be just as dangerous as the destination. But if what that ethos gets me is spending a 2 hour session and having to quit just when my players get to the start of the adventure they wanted to have - if that's what it gets me, then I need to rethink what I'm doing and how I want to accomplish it. First of all, I handwave overland travel all the time, I suspect everyone does. Unless you're hexcrawling, there's no reason to play out every step of the journey. Second, there's a middle ground between Star Trek transporter travel and re-enacting Zeno's Paradox in the hallways. Even hexcrawling, even dungeoncrawling through a "cleared" area of a megadungeon, you can give brief narration to locate the characters within the fictional space, and truly make it brief so that you can get on with things. I should have done that, I think.
The Dreams in the Lich House campaign event generator gave us "dire omens" this session. It fit well with the ongoing events to have the town preachers trying to warn everyone that this is a bad idea. It amuses me to imagine that the adventuring companies have something like the status of rock bands and the whole town is gaga over them. Having the town's moral authority figures railing impotently against the adventurers' bad influence just drives it home even more. I'm impressed by how well using it has worked out. It might be good to have something a little more tailored to my specific campaign ... but on the other hand, the entries here are open-ended enough to work pretty well far from their original setting.
I wasn't originally planning to have the crowd follow the player characters in. I guess I thought they were just going to stay up in the bar and wait to hear back. But one of my players asked if they were coming, and you know, it seemed obvious that they should. Having a crowd of on-sight spectators was interesting, and it was funny to roll morale after the giant ant ate Bjornk's lower body and Archibald started in on his brain. Allowing the crowd to play the "straight man" to my players' slapstick horror antics highlights what's humorous about their characters' behavior - and the irony of the crowd going from innocently naively cheering for a human sacrifice to them being confronted with the reality of the grisliness of their demand got several laughs at the table.
From my players' perspective, I don't think this was a bad session. As I said, we successfully introduced a new regular player into a long-term group, and they enjoyed the role-playing aspects of the session. I just hope to (usually) do more when I run sessions in the future.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

GFA18 - Alternative Technology Check for MCC

I wrote some alternate rules for making technology checks in Mutant Crawl Classics for the 2018 Gongfarmer's Almanac. My goal was to make a mini-game out of learning to use technology. As I state below, this is too complex to use for every piece of technology the characters find. My purpose for creating a mini-game is so that, in a sandbox game, the process of mastering an important, campaign-changing piece of technology becomes both a reason to "quest for it" and a spur to new adventures. Players have an incentive to go looking for instructions, tools, and parts to help boost their technology rolls, and the ability to master (or even mass-produce) the tech creates new opportunities that wouldn't be available otherwise. The fact that progressing up the table typically involves the device breaking or becoming temporarily unusable a few times means that judges can give their players fairly powerful objects without fear of them immediately breaking the game. Players can use the power a few times without much trouble, but if they want to use the power of the artifact to remake the campaign world, they're going to have to work to make that happen.
Keith Garrett edited all my MCC-related writing in the GFA18, but he had a lot more to do for this piece than any of the others. His advice and help resulted in something better and more clear than what I initially wrote. Karim did the art for this and all my MCC pieces. 
Art by Karim
DCC uses d10 skill checks for untrained characters and d20 skill checks for skilled characters. Thieves begin the game casting spells from scrolls using a d10 (as untrained with magic) but as they gain levels, their dice-type improves, one step at a time, modeling the learning process. This alternative to the MCC technology check uses thieves' spellcasting improvement as a model and applies it to denizens of Terra A.D. learning to use Ancient technology.
When characters first encounter a new piece of ancient technology, they roll d10 + Artifact check bonus + Intelligence modifier. As they learn to understand the artifact, their dice-type can improve. Characters need to be very smart or very lucky to operate a new artifact successfully, or do anything at all other than break it. But each success has the chance to lead to new insights, allowing characters to eventually gain mastery over each new piece of technology.
Technology level and complexity: The tech level sets a limit on the who may attempt to use an artifact. A character cannot make a technology roll for an artifact whose tech level is higher than the limit set by their Intelligence--unless their character level is equal or higher to the tech level (for example, any 7th-level character can attempt to use alien technology, even if their Intelligence is lower than 24. Most 6th-level characters can't attempt to use such a device, however; they can't even fumble and break it). Characters don't need to make technology rolls for objects from their home culture's tech level or lower.
(Stone-age technology is TL 1, mechanical devices are TL 2, electronic and modern computing devices are TL 3, near-future tech is TL 4, far-future tech is TL 5, technology indistinguishable from magic is TL 6, and advanced alien technology is TL 7).
The complexity of an artifact is subtracted as a penalty from the technology roll.
Progressing and re-rolling: As characters roll on the table below, the technology die they roll (starting with d10) can only increase, never decrease. If a result indicates that further rolls should be made using a technology die that's lower than the character's current ability, ignore that portion of the result.
Characters can also continue to study and master ancient technology that is currently non-functional or broken. If a result indicates that the artifact activates, but the tech can’t activate because it needs repairs, or it has run out of ammunition or power, then it doesn’t activate, ignore that portion of the result.
Each successful result on the table below is intended to eventually force a re-roll. Each entry describes how long a character can use the artifact before they must make another technology roll. For example, on a result of 17-19, the artifact functions for 1d3 game sessions before it breaks and needs minor repairs. Once that happens, the character must make a new technology roll, even if they can make minor repairs without needing a new tech roll to learn how--they still need a new technology roll because the result demanded it.
Classes bonuses: As noted in their character descriptions, some characters have an affinity for certain forms of ancient technology. Sentinels also add their artifact bonus die to technology rolls for weapons and armor. Healers roll +1d on rolls related to medical artifacts and devices. Rovers receive an additional bonus to understand ancient doors, locks, traps, and other security systems. These bonuses still apply to the technology roll as well as to Intelligence checks related to learning or using the technology.
Assisting and teaching: One character must volunteer to be the primary technology user; that character makes the technology roll using their current technology die for that object. Up to three characters may assist, if they have sufficient intelligence. Both the technology user and all assistants may expend Luck to improve the technology roll, and all assistants suffer the consequences of a poor roll. To serve as an assistant, a character must have a minimum Intelligence of 13 (or Int modifier +1). A technology user can have two assistants as long as one assistant has a minimum Intelligence of 16 (or Int modifier +2), and three assistants as long as one has a minimum Intelligence of 18 (or Int modifier +3). Add the Intelligence modifier AND the Luck modifier of each assistant to the technology roll, along with any expended Luck.
When a technology user teaches another character to use a piece of technology, the student must roll a d20 to make a DC 10 Intelligence check, modified by their Artifact check bonus, to learn what the teacher knows. On a natural 1, the artifact is permanently broken and inflicts maximum damage on the student and the learner. On a successful Intelligence check, the student may now roll the same technology die as the teacher.
Describing technology: Until characters have attempted to use an artifact and begun to unravel its secrets, they should receive only an "abstract description" as explained in the MCC rules. Once they have a d12 or higher technology die, they have earned the right to a "literal description."
Judging advice: This alternate rule is intended to create a mini-game out of learning to use ancient artifacts. As such, it is probably too cumbersome to use with every artifact the characters find. Instead, I recommend using different approaches depending on the nature of the artifact. Trinkets and other extremely simple artifacts might work automatically. Single-use artifacts might still allow a d20 technology die from the very beginning. Learning to use one artifact might grant a bonus - or even allow the characters to use the same technology die - for any similar objects.
Table: Artifact Check Results
1     The artifact breaks irreparably and inflicts maximum damage (or 1d6, for artifacts with no damage listed) to all characters within a range of 10' (or further, if applicable based on the artifact).
2-3   The artifact breaks and needs major repairs. It inflicts 1d3 damage on the user and all assistants.
4-6   The artifact breaks and needs minor repairs.
7-11   The artifact doesn't function, but isn't broken. However, a piece is missing, a part is knocked out of position, a control is on the wrong setting. The device won't activate until a DC 12 Intelligence check makes it functional again.
12-13   The artifact activates for one use, but its operation is still not understood. Another technology roll must be made before it can be used again. Further technology rolls use a d12 technology die.
14-16   The artifact activates and is minimally understood. It can be used for 1d3 uses, then another technology roll must be made before it can be used again. Further technology rolls use a d14 technology die.
17-19   The artifact activates and its operation is basically understood. Additional ammunition or power sources can be used to reload the artifact if they're available. The artifact can be used for 1d3 game sessions, then it needs minor repairs and another technology roll must be made before it can be used again. Further technology rolls use a d16 technology die.
20-26   The artifact activates and its operation is well understood. Minor repairs may be attempted with a DC 12 Intelligence check and the correct tools and materials. The artifact can be used for 1d4 game sessions, then it needs major repairs and another technology roll must be made before it can be used again. Further technology rolls use a d20 technology die.
27-33   The artifact activates and its operation is precisely understood. Minor repairs may be attempted without rolling a check. Major repairs may be attempted with the correct tools and materials and a DC 12 Intelligence check. The artifact can be used for 1d6 game sessions, then it breaks irreparably and needs to be replaced. Further technology rolls use a d24 technology die.
34-35   The artifact activates and its operation is precisely understood. Major and minor repairs may be attempted without rolling a check. A duplicate artifact can be constructed with the proper materials, parts, and tools and DC 12 Intelligence check. The artifact can be used for 1d8 game sessions, then it breaks irreparably and needs to be replaced. Further technology rolls use a d30 technology die.
36+     The artifact activates and its operation is precisely understood. Major and minor repairs, and even the construction of a duplicate artifact can be attempted without rolling a check. No further technology rolls are needed for this object. It can be operated at-will, and no greater understanding can be achieved by examining it. The technological principles underlying the artifact can be understood by making a DC 24 Intelligence check. Once these principles are understood, new artifacts can be designed by following those principles, using correct materials, parts, and tools, and a DC 12 Intelligence check.
Example: Lily is a post-apocalyptic scavenger, familiar with TL 3 automatic firearms. When Lily meets Jean, a time-traveler from the far future, she steals Jean's fazer-pistol and threatens to shoot Jean with it unless someone explains why cyborgs are attacking. Jean promises to protect Lily, and manages to persuade her to return the pistol unfired. Curious to know what would have happened, Lily's player rolls d10 and adds Lily's Intelligence modifier (+0 for Int 12) plus her artifact check bonus (+2 for a 1st level Rover), subtracts the fazer-pistol's Complexity (-6), and gets a total of 0. Jean says "It was set to overload. If you had shot me, it would have exploded and killed us both." Feeling embarrassed, Lily says "It was my first raygun." Later, they find a hard-light hologram of a 1920s machine gun, and Lily is able to use it without making a technology roll at all. Together, Jean and Lily repel the cyborg invasion!