Monday, October 28, 2019

New New Crobuzon - A City of Stones and Spirits

A couple days ago Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque posted an old link to Githyanki Diaspor. I suggested calling this the "New New Crobuzon Challenge" and following the rules to make more of them, and a few people have taken me up on it!

Other New New Crobuzons include New Twain (from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque), The Last City (from From the Sorcerer's Skull), The City of Emination (from The Benign Brown Beast), Thaw (from Archons March On), a nameless new new city (from Dead Tree, No Shelter), Styx (from Games of the Void Rust Medusa), Pandeimos (from Throne of Salt), and New Jericho (from Green Skeleton Gaming Guild).

There are two parts to the challenge - first, choose 3 humanoid monsters to be minority citizens in your fantasy city and assign them cultural niches; second, choose 3 horrible monsters and decide how the city accommodates their presence without them destroying everything.

I picked shaitan genies, dhampirs, and wayangs for my minority citizens; and devourers, callers in darkness, and caryatid columns for my monstrosities.

Shaitan Genie from Pathfinder Bestiary
Citizens - Shaitan, foreign disruptors.

The shaitan arrived as foreign merchants, their caravans carting in untold fortunes in gold and jewels. They bought the banks, the warehouses, paid off the city's debts, and earned the right to collect tolls. They charge entry fees at the gates and the ports, they charge beggars and businesses alike for the right to conduct business on their streets and in their bazaar. Yet traders flock from afar for the chance to pay the shaitan's fees.

They are the gaudiest of nouveau riche, building mansions, throwing parties, holding extravagant festivals and parades. Their pashas rival the power of the old families, though they have remained outside city politics, for now. A new class of oread youths, the product of dalliances between the shaitan and humans, are just entering adulthood, buying up so many seats in the university and commissions in the army that the children of the lesser old families are beginning to be blocked out of positions they once considered their birthright.

Dhampir from Pathfinder Advanced Class Guide
Citizens - Dhampirs, untouchable underclass.

Long before the shaitan came, before the Revolution ushered in an elected government and gave power to the so-called "old families", the city was ruled by the vampire oligarchs. For too long, the city starved and suffocated in their iron-strong grip. As the oread are to the pashas, so were the dhampirs to the oligarchs - even their illegitimate children held a higher station than any full human. But when the Revolution drove out the oligarchy and divvied up their estates, the dhampirs were bereft, and remain so to this day.

The most fortunate dhampirs work as skilled healers and caretakers, their hunger met by prescribed medicinal bloodletting. The rest must drink from rats and stray dogs, from the sluiceways at slaughterhouses, from dead bodies awaiting ritual preparation. Rumor claims they are diseased, and they're still blamed for the sins of the oligarchs, generations ago. A few dhampirs take up swords as brigands who steal blood from the healthy, as militants who protect their ghetto from celebratory violence on Revolution Day. These few are the most hated criminals in the city.
Wayang from Pathfinder Advanced Race Guide
Citizen - Wayangs, extraplanar artisans.

Wayangs come into the city from across the veil of shadows. They claim the city has a dark twin just across the veil, identical in architecture but with a population and political structure all its own, although strangely, their history also includes a time of misrule beneath vampire oligarchs. Academics debate the meaning of this coincidence endlessly.

The wayang who come here are refugees, exiled from their home for blasphemy or political critique. Whatever their vocations at home, here they are artists, for they control shadow-stuff as easily and fluently as humans control the sound of their own speech. Their concerts and plays are riots of condemnation against the rulers who exiled them, though no doubt much of the metaphor and allusion are lost on human audiences. Still, at their greatest performances, the shaitan pashas sit beside the old families, and even the caryatids gather to watch.
Devourer from Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition Monster Manual
Monstrosity - Devourers, constructs run amok.
The undead bodies of devourers stand two or three stories high, and are all but indestructible. They are thought to be siege engines, escaped from some foreign holy war. They seem to be drawn to the city by the presence of here of belief, although others have been spotted at a distance wandering the countryside. Fortunately, their numbers are few, and they remain mostly confined in the poorest neighborhoods - those places that are poor and remain so because anyone who can afford to move out does so.

Whenever a prayer is spoken or a miracle cast, a bit of its power escapes, just as some of the power of an engine becomes heat instead of motion. This wasted piety fuels the devourers. The cages of their chests fill with divine magic, which takes shape as a ghostly image of the faithful. Usually by the time a devourer has strength enough to lumber about, this image is a composite of a dozen faces, and the deaths and damage they cause can't be easily blamed on one devout. Though the city has rituals, it is officially godless. Though the caryatids guard temples, those stand empty. Prayers spoken within the city are not answered, they are eaten. But still, the people have never fully stopped praying.

Caller In Darkness from Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition Psionic Handbook
Monstrosity - Callers in Darkness, undead pollution.

Since the reign of the vampire oligarchs, the city has known how to burn fossils as a source of fuel. Properly interred after the appropriate rituals, a well-buried skeleton will blacken within a year, and the poorest families have long used their own ancestors for winter's heat. Recently, industrialists have discovered that layers of the ancient dead lie beneath the streets, pressed hard as stone by the weight of the city overhead, and even recently excavated grave earth can be compacted to a suitable density.

An unfortunate byproduct of this process is the release of callers in darkness, composite ghosts made from dozens of souls, released simultaneously when the fossil stone is burned. They are largely confined to the industrial districts that safely empty out at night, and will harmlessly evaporate in warm, dry weather. Unfortunately, they tend to accumulate in the coldest, wettest months of winter, and sometimes spill over into the factory-workers' housing districts and the dhampir ghettos, where they are blamed for the untimely deaths of infants and the elderly, and at least once, of an entire housing block whose lives were extinguished in a single night.
Caryatid Column from Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition Field Folio
Citizens - Caryatids, guardians of tradition.

The oldest buildings in the city date back to ancient times, and each is home to caryatids, who are made of the same stone as the buildings, who remember every moment of their waking lives since the moment of their creation. The ancient buildings are now the city's most important civic sites - the courthouse, the library, the amphitheater. The caryatids enforce the Ancient Laws inside their buildings. It is impossible for one person to harm another inside without lethal retribution, impossible for anyone to appropriate these sites for anything other than their intended use.

The caryatids never leave their buildings except to pay one another occasional visits, walking along the ancient roadways. They spend much of their time sleeping, motionless, unbreathing. When awake, they seem to enjoy conversing with humans. Their knowledge of history is deep, but constrained to their vantage point, and riddled with gaps from their slumber. They never speak first, but will answer if addressed. They will not speak to everyone, and no one understands their criteria for choosing. They will answer any question if they can, and fortunes have been made, powerful people humbled, by asking the right question of a caryatid.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Campaign Setup - The Price

The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Price" would make a pretty good set-up for a campaign. I feel confident saying that because apparently the makers of Star Trek thought so too. This episode is a microcosm of the set-up that became the entire series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and a single unanswered question left lingering at the end of the episode is enough to launch a second entire series in Star Trek: Voyager.

In terms of ideas that have generative power, "The Price" might be the most fecund forty-five minutes of television ever put on the air.
You might not realize it if you watch the episode, because it appears to be all about a love triangle between Riker, Troi, and a boyfriend-of-the-week character named Ral. Ral is a freelance negotiator, and like Troi, he has empathic abilities that let him sense other people's emotions, and also like Troi, he uses his abilities to do better at his job. The character story here is all about Riker proving to himself that he can do Troi's new boyfriend's job better than he can, and Troi proving to herself that she uses her psychic powers more ethically than Ral does, and also kind of about Riker and Troi reaffirming that even though they're not dating right now, they still like each other better than either of them likes anyone else.

So that's whatever, but it's these negotiations, and what they're all negotiating for that are campaign gold. Because at it's heart, what you have here is a great prize that is controlled by a weak faction, three stronger factions competing to win an alliance with the weaklings and control of the prize, and the weak faction themselves trying to maintain some semblance of autonomy in the face of the others' territorial ambitions.

And just like in Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeoneque's recent post about using Dune as a campaign set-up, "The Price" presents a situation that you could reskin to match whatever campaign aesthetic you favor.

So the key elements of this set-up are:
The great prize - A location of great power to whoever controls it. In "The Price" it's the Barzan Wormhole, an unstable gateway to the far side of the galaxy. In Deep Space Nine, it's the Bajoran Wormhole, which is a stable gateway to the far side of the galaxy.

The prize can be anything valuable enough to be worth fighting over, and too tied to it's location to be feasibly relocated, so it could be an oasis, or an oil well, or the sole planetary source of Spice. Although I will note that if you want planar travel in your campaign, the precedent is already there.
The weak faction - The people indigenous to the place where the great prize is located. Notably, when I say that they're weak, I mean that they're too weak to militarily defend the prize from anyone who wants to take it by force, and too weak to economically exploit the prize for their own benefit. So they're in the market for a benefactor. It's sort of a shotgun marriage though, because they have to choose one of the stronger factions, because they'll invaded if they don't pick, and would probably be decimated if the stronger factions fought a war with each other over control of the prize.

In "The Price" the weak faction is the Barzans, an alien-of-the-week faction we've never heard of before and will never hear of again. In Deep Space Nine, it's the Bajorans, who we actually have heard of before, and who, you know, stick around for the entire series. The Bajorans are a pretty religious people. They have a theocratic government, believe in the importance of revelation and personal experiences with the divine, they oppose secular education and other non-religious public institutions, and oh yeah, their key representative on the show, "our hero," is a former terrorist who loves to tell stories about her "good old days" of waging terror. (The show plays a bit differently today than it did back before September 2001, is what I'm saying.)

Anyway, your weak faction can be deferential or defiant, but what's important is that they seemingly cannot hold onto the great prize without picking one of the stronger factions as an ally. They aren't exactly the protagonists of either show, but this faction wouldn't be a bad choice for your player characters to belong to. They're the belle of the ball, they have their pick of the litter, and who knows, maybe they can figure out a way to refuse all three suitors, or arrange shared custody, or find some other way to subvert the restrictions of the scenario to achieve a better outcome for their faction.

The distant empire - One of the strong factions, arguably the strongest of the three, but the great prize is at the very edge of their territory, and they're stretched a bit thin out here. So while they might win hands down closer to home, here they're forced to compete on much more even footing. The distance involved might be one of the only reasons why the weak faction isn't already a part of the empire, in fact. They represent the promise of civilization and the threat of assimilation. If the weak faction picks this ally, they'll be welcomed into the local pinnacle of culture and refinement, but at the potential cost of being forced to give up their cultural distinctiveness.

In both "The Price" and Deep Space Nine, this role is played by The Federation, who are the protagonists and "good guys" of both series. You could follow that lead and assign your player characters to this role. If your players take on the part of any of the stronger factions, the campaign becomes a mission to perform tasks that will impress the weak faction, and do espionage to subvert the other two strong factions. Part of me feels like the weak faction deserves to be given the agentic role in the campaign, but there might be more for your players to do if they're the ones wooing rather than the ones being wooed.

A key creative task here is to decide on some kind of incompatibility between the empire and the weak faction. Because they're the strongest, because they come bearing all the wonders and comforts of civilization, because they're offering equal-status membership alongside the other nations in their union, this faction seems to be making an offer that there's no good reason to refuse. So you need to make sure there is a good reason. In "The Price" it's not really clear, we've never met the Barzans before, and their ambassador just seems kind of wishy-washy. In Deep Space Nine, the Bajorans are religious where the Federation is secular, they worship "Prophets" that the Feds see as "wormhole aliens," and they just recently managed to kick out the previous occupying conqueror (via the aforementioned campaign of terror), which makes independence seem much more attractive than membership. In your campaign, the weaker faction might not want to give up their gods or their language, they might believe in different economic  or political arrangements, they might have different perspectives on gender or sexuality, or they might be a society of fish-people unsure about joining an empire of land-dwelling mammal-peoples. Or maybe they're more like the Roman Empire and "membership" isn't going to be on anything like equal standing. Whatever works for you.
The merchants - A second strong faction, they have a plan to use the prize to make money, and they're willing to cut the weak faction in for a small slice of the pie if they're granted control. Both the other two strong factions mostly seem to want to prevent each other from getting ahold of the prize, the empire might have some noble-sounding but probably-slow-moving plans to use it for the betterment of all humanity, but only the merchants really have a plan to really do something with the prize, and that something is going to make everyone involved very quickly very rich.

In "The Price" and Deep Space Nine, the Ferengi take on the role of the merchants. In "The Price" they aren't chosen pretty much just because they're the "bad guys" of the episode. In Deep Space Nine, they actually do get the chance to launch trading expeditions through the wormhole, and make a lot of money for themselves and the Bajorans when they do so, although later there are consequences.

The merchants offer the most economic benefit for the prize, but otherwise occupy a kind of middle-ground between the empire and the conquerors. They don't want a political union at all, just a contract that apparently maintains the weak faction's sovereignty and autonomy. Like the empire, they're offering a kind of equality, although they also inspire a kind of queasy feeling that things won't really be as equal as you're being promised. There's a sense that, like the conquerors, they're going to move in an make themselves at home. The real threat of the merchants is the threat of unrestrained capitalism, and all the ills that can accompany it - pollution and environmental destruction, the landscape is changed beyond recognition, foreign workers who speak a new language and practice new customs, foreign soldiers who commit crimes and behave as though they're above your laws, entertainments that you consider "vice" spring up to service the outsiders and some of your people get a taste for them, an influx of cash transforms your society by rewarding some of your people while impoverishing others, a simple increase in population and traffic turns your town into a city, you can't go "home" because that no longer exists.

The conquerors - The final strong faction. In "The Price" this part is played by the Chrysalians, another alien-of-the-week we've never seen before and will never see again. The Chrysalians are a bit of a cypher. We know they hired Troi's boyfriend-of-the-week to negotiate for them ... aaand that's about it. In Deep Space Nine, we get the Cardassians, a species of fascist reptile-people whose government appears to be modeled after 1984. They previously occupied Bajor and subjugated the Bajoran people, but never did much of anything with the prize while they held it. The threat of retaliation by the other two strong factions is the only thing preventing them from trying to reinvade.

Because of the major differences between the Chrysalians and the Cardassians, there's no single strong precedent for this faction, although since I named them "the conquerors" you can guess which model I recommend. I will say though, that I think this set-up will work better if they have a reputation for being conquerors elsewhere, but haven't actually the former occupying army who used to have their boots pressed against the weak faction's neck. There's not really much temptation to make an alliance with the conquerors if they previously conquered you - although it does pile on the pressure to ally with one of the other two.

The Chrysalian option makes this faction kind of a wildcard. Their promise and peril could be pretty much anything you want. If you do model them after the Cardasians, I would say that their promise is protection. They have a strong military and will use it to defend you. No one else is going to be allowed to hurt you anymore. The peril is that these people are unrepentant autocrats and their government is a tyranny. Before the ink is even dry on your agreement, you won't be allowed to say anything critical of the conquerors, and if you ever feel like the deal has been altered, you'd better pray they don't alter it further. While the empire and the merchants are both likely to seem a bit libertine compared to the weak faction, the conqueror's laws are going to be more restrictive, and probably something the weak faction enjoys is going to be made illegal. The conquerors also don't really want to use the great prize, they just want to have it, and to make sure no else has it.
That's the main set-up, and as I said, it should work with whatever genre reskin you wanted to put over it. The campaign starts with the courtship with all the counter-espionage and corporate intrigue between strong factions you desire, in due course, the weak faction makes the decision and picks a partner. How they choose probably ultimately depends on what they want - do they want culture? do they want money? do they want to be powerful, or to feel protected by someone powerful? This alliance will be tested, and might endure, or it might fail, leading to a new alliance. The losing factions might attempt to seize the prize directly. And of course, the happy couple will want to use the prize to accomplish a goal.

You could also add a few extra complications if you wanted. The space station Deep Space Nine becomes the fortress. It turns out that to control the great prize, you really need to control the fortress. Long-term, holding the fort requires being on friendly terms with the natives of the weak faction, but short-term anything is possible. The Klingons could serve as the mercenary army. They're ostensibly allied with the empire, but a new warlord might give up fighting for pay and start fighting for conquest and/or the joy of fighting. They have a decent shot to capture the fortress no matter who's holding it, and the opportunity to recapture it might tip the balance of power. The Romulans could serve as the royal spies. A highly trained group of infiltrators and saboteurs, they're on friendly terms with the conquerors, but as with the mercenaries, their loyalties could shift.

And finally, there's my favorite faction, and a key reason to make the great prize a portal to somewhere - the people from the other side. These could be djinn- and ifriti-people who live at the bottom of the oasis, archaean natives of the deep hot biosphere at the bottom of the oil well, or my personal favorite, extra-planar entities from the other dimension the portal links to. Because the wonderful thing about making the prize a portal is that you get to go to the other side and see what's over there. It also means that the people from the other side can come to you, which is also exciting. In Deep Space Nine the people from the other side start out as just another faction, and eventually grow into an unstoppable army who seem impossible to defeat. They don't have to be that way in your campaign though. They just have to be interesting enough make the possibility of planar travel seem tempting rather than forbidding.
Planar travel, incidentally, is the answer to that lingering question, I mentioned in the very beginning, when I said that "The Price" also inspired Star Trek: Voyager. The Federation and the Ferengi both send crewed shuttlecrafts through the Barzan Wormhole to the far side of the galaxy. The far end of the wormhole turns out to be unstable, and the Feds barely make it back through in time. The Ferengi miss their chance, and are forced to try getting home the long way, a trip that will take 70 years at top speed. "What if a Federation crew got trapped by a one-way wormhole?" is the question that becomes Voyager.

I started thinking about campaign set-ups after reading Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque's post about a faction-heavy set-up. Jack's two most recent publications, The Liberation of Wormwood and Dirge of Urazya are also campaign set-ups. Evlyn at Le Chaudron Chromatique has also written quite a few of these. Because what occurred to me is that a campaign set-up is different from a campaign setting. It's the same way that character motivations are different from character occupations.

A campaign setting is a world where adventures can take place. It's a lot of fun to imagine what those worlds might be like. But there's something missing when all you have is a campaign setting, and that missing piece will leave you saying "it's a nice place to visit, but I don't know what you'd do there." A campaign setting, by itself, is not enough. You don't just need characters, and a world, you need characters who have a place in the world and a goal that sends them out into it. Without that, all you have is a travel guide. The same setting, incidentally, can probably host many different campaigns, which are made different by their differing set-ups.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

I am become Strech Goal, destroyer of crowdfunding campaigns

Joshua LH Burnett (Bernie the Flumph) and his writing partner Leighton Connor have announced a Kickstarter campaign for a DCC setting and adventure Leopard Women of Venus!

The whole thing is inspired by a comic by Fletcher Hanks, one of the really gloriously weird artists from the Golden Age of pulp comics. You can see a sample page below:
The setting and two (or three! stretch goals!) adventures are all based in a science fantasy Venus where there's a pile-up of squabbling factions, including the Science Robots, and their defenders, the titular Leopard Women. To find out more, though, you should read the sales precis on Kickstarter, or look at the free preview.

I've admired Josh's writing before, and enjoyed playing in a couple of his adventures, so I'm excited to be involved in this project.

There's also an exciting list of other collaborators! In addition to Josh and Leighton as the lead authors, the artists include Erol Otus, Matt Kish, Bradley K McDevitt, Evlyn Moreau, Diogo Nogueira, Juan Navarro, James V West, and Joshua LH Burnett again. Fiona Maeve Geist and Steve Johnson are editing.

The project funds at $3000, adds art by Stefan Poag at $3500, adds me at $4000, more art at $4500, and a third adventure at $5000.

You can get the pdf for $15, print-on-demand and pdf for $20, and the above plus pdfs of Josh's two previous zines Sanctum of the Snail and Draugr & Draculas for $30.

This is a project that will likely appeal to fans of DCC, Golden Age comics, gozno science fantasy, and Josh's previous work.

If the project hits its second stretch goal, I'll be writing a mysterious and secret new DCC patron, whose identity will no doubt be revealed later as part of a canny marketing strategy! You can see some of my previous patron writing here. Until then, you'll have to be content with seeing Stardust the Super-Wizard and Fantomah the Mystery Woman of the Jungle become DCC patrons on Venus.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Dungeon Alphabet Dozen - B is for BOOKS

B is for BOOKS
Roll 1d12!

There is a cumulative 1-in-12 chance per dungeon level that a found book has Special Properties.

Random Special Properties of Books

1 The book is CURSED, and reading it activates the curse.

2 Reading the book makes the reader permanently immune to the effect of one random spell. If the spell is beneficial, the character must succeed a saving throw vs. spells in order to allow themselves to be affected by it.

3 Biological monograph on local monster species reveals one heretofore unanticipated combat vulnerability.

4 Extremely extended family trees for ruling families of several demihuman and humanoid races reveals their previously unknown shared evolutionary origins.

5 Field manual with extensive marginalia on a random skill (as thief) provides a +1 (or +17%) bonus to the first 1d6 attempts to use that skill. There is a flat 1-in-12 chance per skill use that this bonus will become permanent. Each skill use requires 1 exploration turn of consultation before the attempt.

6 Encyclopedic volume on a random area of expertise (as a sage) provides answers to the first 1d12 questions on that topic. Due to verbosity and inadequate indexing, each question takes 4 hours to look up an answer.

7 Over-hyped divination manual with ludicrous illustrations of author's cosmic power actually does foretell the future. The first 1d6 readers each gain a random fortune after staying up all night reading it.

8 Ineffectual-looking but surprisingly potent self-help manual provides tips and exercises to be a better person. After 1d6 weeks of use, the reader gains a permanent +1d6 to a random ability score. Subsequent readers spend 1d12 weeks to discover they get no benefit at all, and become convinced that original player character has been duped by a flim-flam author.

9 Extensive theological treatise sufficient to allow a player character to scribe scrolls to banish, bind, dismiss, ensnare, summon, or torment one random demon god of the underworld, plus one such scroll already completed.

10 Schematic allowing the player characters to assemble one random piece of anti-diluvean technology.

11 Pre-apocalyptic novel is a guaranteed best-seller. Every merchant the player character meet is going to want to buy the "rare surface edition" and put it into mass production. Every NPC the characters meet will be reading (or re-reading) the book and will want to talk of nothing else. There is a flat 1 in 6 chance each week that it's finally been replaced by some other underworld FASHION.

12 First-hand historical account of previous apocalypse implicates ancestors of the rulers of the nearest city in unforgivable war crimes. Revelation of this information will topple the regime leading to a week of rioting followed by weekly coups as each new faction temporarily ascends to fill the power vacuum. There is a flat 1 in 6 chance per week that the current leading faction manages to solidify its control of the city to become the new permanent rulers.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Dark Old Miscellany - Black Food, Black Houses, Old Food, Winter Gardens


The Allure of Black-Colored Food
Ligaya Mishan
New York Times

"So what does the color black taste like? More precisely, what do our brains tell us it should taste like? From experience, we might expect the tartness of blackberries or the brininess of black olives or the near-bitterness of charred meat and blistered pizza crusts. Black is the menthol buzz of licorice or the density of rough bread from countries near the Arctic Circle, where the winter months see only a few hours of daylight. It’s marine, like rice blackened by cuttlefish ink in Valencia, Spain, or turfy, like rice blackened by long-soaked djon-djon mushrooms in Haiti. It’s the mineral tang of British blood pudding, Ecuadorian morcilla, Tibetan gyuma, French boudin noir. It’s the funk of huitlacoche, a fungus borne of rotting corn, blossoming like a nuclear cloud out of the dying cob, a delicacy in Mexico. It’s the subtle presence of vanilla, announced by sootlike black spots, scraped from the hard furrowed pod. But even given these associations, when I see a food that’s not naturally black turned that dramatic shade, it strikes me as so discordant that I expect it to taste like nothing I’ve tried before."


New on the Block: The Little Black House
Hayley Krischer
New York Times

"Black represents sadness, anger or grief for many. But that’s not all. Black also evokes a sense of richness and power. Black can be enveloping and warm, and even signify high drama. In medieval times, Ms. Gura said, black was associated with royalty; it was luxurious. Black can be practical too. In northern Europe, where tar was used as a water sealant on exteriors, the color stuck."

"Black is a color of provocation. Nineteenth-century anarchists waved their black flag. Twentieth-century fascists loved it. Beat poets, punks and Goths made it their brand. The Black Panthers wore black leather jackets and black berets. When the fashion designer Rei Kawakubo introduced everyday black clothes in the early 1980s, critics described the collection as 'post-atomic.' Most recently, black is what women in Hollywood and Congress chose to wear to express solidarity with victims of sexual assault."

The Novel Taste of Old Food
Ligaya Mishan
New York Times

"Food past its imagined prime can surprise us, like the 'vintage carrot.' It was a dish borne of scarcity in a cruel winter, carrots that had been left to languish in the earth in iced-over fields, whose skin was as rough as hide. By all appearances they were inedible, but once braised for hours like a côte de boeuf, they turned meaty, mineral and profound."

"Some flavors and textures can only be achieved by pushing foods beyond their limit. Banana bread calls for bananas gone black, verging on mush. Without stale bread, there would be no bread pudding."

"The decline toward rot - arrested at the last minute - is what creates umami, a flavor that defies categorization, that smacks of deep sea and forest floor, animal entrails and sun-gorged tomatoes. Everything that is fermented, too, was en route to death and pulled back from the brink. Pickling is salvation - this was especially true before refrigeration, when we needed to eke out supplies to make it through the winter." 


The Barren Charms of a Winter Garden
Ligaya Mishan
New York Times

"To flower, literally and figuratively, is to reach the peak of one’s possibility, from which there is no direction but down. Or so we have been taught: that lushness equals splendor, that when a blossom wilts and fails, the plant that bore it is finished, returned to drabness, spent of purpose. Spring is a pageant, winter a graveyard."

"Edney embraces a plant’s full life cycle, in flower and in death - where others dismiss winter as a dormant, liminal season, he insists that vitality may be found all year. For a seed head is no drab aftermath. Like a flower, it adds color to a landscape, from russets and umbers to flaring golds to lunar whites. One of Edney’s favorites, Veronicastrum virginicum 'Lavendelturm,' retains its spikes in winter, upright, skinnier, with a blush of purple deepening into brown. In lieu of ripeness, seed heads throughout the gardens present an eerie, ossified architecture: tight-mouthed trumpets of Iris sibirica, alliums like exploding stars. Flat-topped sedum might reach barely 10 inches, while miscanthus (silver grass) towers eight feet high, with long woolly tapers of seeds drifting down."


Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Landmark, Hidden, Secret

There are three ways I think about information in roleplaying games. Information can be landmark, or hidden, or it can be secret.

This division can apply to locations on an overland maps, objects within dungeon rooms, and even to details about locations and objects that the players encounter.
A landmark in Super Metroid
Closer inspection reveals something, hidden or secret, underneath
Landmark information is automatic and free. Players hear landmark information the first time without asking, and if they ask, they can be reminded of it as freely as they heard it at first. Learning landmark information doesn't take up any fictional time and doesn't pose any risks.

In a hexcrawl, the keyed encounter is a landmark, but so is the type of terrain. In a dungeon, the main contents of the room is free information, but also the shape of the room and its dimensions. You don't have to ask to be told these things - being told them is what defines a context in which you can ask meaningful questions. It's what defines the start of the turn, what sets the stage where the next act of the game will take place. If your adventure includes read-aloud text, that's landmark information.

An ordinary exit door is an example of a landmark. The judge tells the players the door is there during the initial description of the room. Later, if a player asks, the judge can describe the door in detail again, as though the character is glancing across the room, or recalling it from memory.
Most chozo statues holds a treasure, but to collect, you must risk approaching
One statue will carry you to safety, another will fight you to the death
Hidden information isn't automatic - players have to ask to learn it. And it often isn't free - there is often some fictional cost that must be paid to learn hidden information. However, unlike secret information, there is no chance of failure. If the players ask the question and pay the cost, they will learn the hidden information.

Landmark information is free because the characters can learn it from a distance, simply by looking at the surface of a thing. Hidden information is more expensive because it's more intimate. To learn it, a character must be close enough to touch the thing, must interact with it directly. Landmark information is received passively. Hidden information is actively obtained.

There are two costs to learning hidden information. The first cost, which is possible but not mandatory, is time. If your game keeps track of time, then it's possible that learning hidden information will require allowing some to pass. A turn passes, a clock moves one tick, wandering monsters are checked for, the encounter dice rolls.

The second cost is risk. What's hidden might not be beneficial, or might include both benefits and harms. What's hidden might be a hazard, an ambush, a trap. Discovering what's hidden doesn't always mean being harmed, but it does always mean making your character vulnerable to harm. There's no way to learn what's hidden without taking that risk.

The contents of every treasure chest are hidden information, every cabinet, every closet, every safe. Everything under or behind or inside is hidden. Seeking out and finding hidden information is one of the main goals of the game. Our characters don't simply look at the most obvious features of each room before moving on to the next. They explore.

A door concealed behind a curtain is an example of something hidden. The curtains themselves are a landmark, but the judge doesn't announce what's behind them. To find the door, a player must ask what's behind the curtains, must place their character at risk to push them aside.
Samus Aran's x-ray scope reveals secrets, if she makes the choice to use it
Some walls can be destroyed with the correct weapon ...

Secret information has no guarantees at all. It is the opposite of automatic, and it's always expensive. It's not just that players have to ask for secret information, as they do with hidden; there is also a chance the judge will continue to withhold the information, unlike any previous type. To learn secret information, players must roll the dice and win. That extra risk, not just of injury but of failure, is what makes secret information more costly than hidden.

Whether players can even learn the existence of secret information is something I think judges disagree about. Some judges would say that proving the existence of a secret and revealing the information should be accomplished as a single step - if you can't reveal the information, then you can't know if there even is a secret there to be revealed. Other judges would say that proving there's a secret and learning what the secret is are two separate steps requiring two different skills. Both those approaches seem to agree on one thing though - the existence of a secret is a secret itself.

I would say that the existence of a secret should be hidden information. I would say that players should be able to prove there is a secret by asking a question and taking a risk. Actually learning the secret should require rolling the dice, but discovering that there IS a secret there to be learned should not be a secret unto itself.

One thing that's useful about this hierarchy I've established is that it helps me think about how players should learn information. You discover hidden information by examining landmarks. You learn secrets by examining hidden information.

There is one comfort for players whose judges make the existence of a secret a secret itself. A player can always suspect the existence of secret information, even if their character can't prove it. This is more or less what some judges mean when they talk about "player skill".

A device that causes a bookshelf to rotate out of the way, revealing a doorway when a particular combination of books are tilted at specific angles, is an example of a secret. The bookshelf is a landmark. The existence of the device is hidden, but any character who inspects it closely will notice that the bookshelf is perfectly flush with the wall, and that the floor is scratched and scuffed in a half-circle in front of it. The operation of the device, however, is a secret. It's not enough to spend time trying to activate the device. There is a chance the characters will try but still fail.
... some floors destroy themselves at the slightest touch
The most dangerous secrets are the ones you never thought to look for
I think there are two benefits to thinking about information this way. Thinking about the difference between landmarks and hidden information helps write and tell better descriptions. Thinking about the difference between hidden information and secrets helps decide how to resolve player actions.

The difference between landmark information and hidden information isn't just the difference between what you say when players first enter a room and what they have to ask you to find out. It's also the difference between information that is free and information that comes at a cost.

You actually don't have to give a detailed description of everything the characters can see when they first enter a room. In fact, you probably shouldn't. Down that road lies madness, and ten-minute long read-aloud text. It's probably better if your initial description is short and evocative, if it sets the mood and lists the items available to investigate, and then gets out of the way. That doesn't mean all the other information is hidden. For many items on that list, your additional description should be free, and should be as detailed as the player would like. But it does mean that some information is hidden, and you should know which information is free, and which information takes time or involves risk to learn.

It also helps to think about those occasions when information shouldn't be free. When a character is unfamiliar with a work of technology or magic, they should get a description that makes what's familiar to the player strange to the character. When it's dark, perhaps all that characters can learn for free is the shape and size of objects, perhaps under those conditions more information should be hidden and risky. Total darkness is boring. But instead, think of those moments in children's books about not being afraid of the dark, the moments when you realize the "intruder" is just a hat atop a coatrack, or the "monster" is just a pile of clothes in a chair. Those moments happen all the time in fiction, and hardly ever in games. If applied to more interesting objects than coatracks and laundry, they might add a certain feeling of wonder and mystery to experience of exploring in the dark. Total darkness is a total lack of information. Not everything should be hidden. But having some information require extra effort to collect makes that information stand out. Its very difficulty highlights it, and makes it dear.

The difference between hidden information and secret information is that hidden information only requires getting close and only requires that the character spend time on the task. Secret information requires something more, something extra. Ideally, it requires applying a skill that can't - or can't easily - be modeled by player description. In my example of the secret door earlier, if it was just one tilted book that activated the device instead of a combination, it would probably only be a hidden door. All that takes is time, and there's no chance of failure. To guess a combination though, takes too much time, more time than the characters have, and there's plenty of opportunity to guess wrong. So it makes sense to roll the dice.

If all a search requires is time, and the characters have enough time, then what they're searching for is simply hidden, and they can find it without needing to roll the dice. Checking all the burial niches in a funerary crypt where the dead are interred as though in a vault of unlocked safety deposit boxes, digging up a grave, breaking down a false wall or a bricked-over doorway: these all take time - and sometimes make noise - but they require no particular skill, involve no particular risk of making a mistake or overlooking something.

Something can become secret simply because there's not enough time to find it. A methodical all-day search might be certain to turn up what you're looking for - but to uncover it in a single, 10 minute exploration turn requires luck or insight or skill. It requires rolling the dice. For there to be not enough time there has to be some kind of time pressure, some kind of countdown or deadline, either narrative or mechanical, some kind of reason the characters can't just spend all day. Remember, for the players, that search only takes as long as they need to say they agree to it.

There can also be not enough time because of the skill required to make the search. Not all problems have easy solutions. Trying to solve them just by spending time might require, not hours, but years, centuries. Knowing how to solve a problem like that quickly is a skill. It's special knowledge that not everyone - not every character - possesses. And even if a character has the right skill, there's still a chance that they'll fail. So roll the dice. Roll the dice, because the alternative is to make the players try to act out their characters' searches. Roll the dice because while the characters might have all day, the players don't, and their time, your time, is worth more than trying to devise and explain the correct search algorithm.

Again, not everything that isn't a landmark should be a secret. Some things can simply be hidden. Having to explicitly request to look closer is already a barrier to discovery. The additional barrier of a dice roll is appropriate in some situations, but not every situation.. But before rolling the dice, decide if the information is secret or just hidden - decide what it would mean for the characters to be able to fail in their search. If you don't think they even could fail, then it's not really a secret, and you don't need to roll the dice.

Some games include conditional information that is halfway between hidden and secret. Like secret information, it can't simply be found by every character who looks. But under the right conditions, it can be found, with no chance of failure, like hidden information. Skills in Trail of Cthulhu and its sister games work like that. If you have the right skill and you search for a clue, you will find it. But if you don't have the skill, you simply can't find it. Equipment in a lot of video games works this way. In A Link to the Past, if Link has the right magic gloves, he can lift boulders to clear a path, but without them, the path remains blocked. In Super Metroid, Samus needs specific ammunition to shoot down specific doors; without the right ammo, the doors remain closed.

A final note is that some games have only secrets, with no hidden information that can be learned without making a skill test. In the earliest dungeons, you can't even open a door without passing a skill test. I think how difficult it is to gain information should be based on its importance to the game.

If the players have to know some information, it should be landmark. This is true of all the visual description needed to create a shared image of the game world in everyone's imagination.

If information is really important, it should probably be landmark or hidden. No player wants their judge to "fudge" and lie about the result of a dice roll, or to "railroad" and seize control of the characters to make them do something ... but no one wants to cancel their expedition and spend the rest of the session hastily putting together a back-up delve just because they couldn't find the one secret door that revealed the rest of the dungeon either.

Information can safely be made secret under one of two conditions. The first is if that information is truly optional. It might be very nice for the players to find it, but the game won't come to a complete halt if they can't. The second condition is if there are a variety of ways to learn the information. If there are at least three ways to learn a piece of information, and the characters botch every attempt, then perhaps it's okay to let them fail. No one wants the entire group's game to end for the night because of one bad dice roll, but three bad dice rolls, accompanied by three rounds of planning and three narrative descriptions of the attempt mean that failure hasn't stopped the game - watching the characters fail has become the game, at least for this night and this secret.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Environmental Miscellany - Hideous Forest, Underland, Speculative Evolution

The Lessons of a Hideous Forest
William Bryant Logan & Damon Winter
New York Times  

"The deeper we walked, the uglier the woods got. The invasive oriental bittersweet and porcelain berry, along with the native grape and the poison ivy, fought it out to win the game of overtopping trees, bringing them down in a heap. The carnage looked like Mathew Brady’s photos of Civil War corpses, piled along hillsides and behind walls, in leafless, lifeless winter, as dead as dead can be. But unlike the soldiers, the trees were not going to perish."

"The vines moved on in search of new upstanding hosts. Noticing that their tormentors were gone, the trees had sprouted. A few lateral branches on a black cherry, now standing straight up from its fallen trunk, were rising as new trees into the sky. Most would die as the old roots rotted, but some would put down their own. One hollow mulberry had been dangling root filaments from inside its trunk into the soil, so when the mother went down, a youngster was already arising. This is called phoenix regeneration. There couldn’t be a better name."


What Lies Beneath
Rebecca Giggs
The Atlantic

"Of all the earth’s terrestrial vertebrates, humans make the deepest incursions into the underground. The farthest that any animal, other than us, is known to burrow from the surface of the planet is 13 yards - the feat of, unbelievably, the Nile crocodile. Below this level live permanent troglodytes, organisms that never see the sunlight. Microbes and minuscule stygofauna - glassy snails, shrimplike creatures - bob in groundwater systems, and pale amphibians furl in the murkiest reaches of caves. A species of roundworm has been detected more than two miles belowground. Yet humans go even farther. Aided by excavating machines, people have delved to a record depth of 7.7 miles, straight into the rock off the Russian island of Sakhalin, and deeper (as far as we know) than the most cavernous marine trench."

Wild Speculation: Evolution After Humans
Lucy Jakub
New York Review of Books

"It’s an almost nostalgic vision: the megafauna that were driven extinct during the 'Age of Man' have been replaced by new species that bear an uncanny resemblance to their predecessors. Humanity’s enduring legacy is not its alteration of the environment - but that the extinctions we have precipitated will have left behind an array of empty niches, to be filled by whatever adaptable species are able to take advantage of them. Imagine a game of biogeographical musical chairs in which penguins have evolved comb-like beaks to sieve plankton as whales do, rats have replaced the big cats as dominant carnivores, cats swing through the tropical canopy chasing monkeys, and monkeys glide on flaps of skin like flying squirrels. The book’s central idea is convergent evolution: that similar traits arise independently in different species, to perform similar functions in similar environments."

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Dungeon Alphabet Dozen - A is also for ADVENTURERS

A is also for ADVENTURERS
Roll 1d12!

Rival adventuring parties usually have a leader plus 1d6 additional members. Whenever the player characters encounter a rival party, there is a cumulative 2-in-6 chance per party that they've re-encountered a rival they've met before. (As a result, there are never more than three rival teams at one time, but if one team dies...)

When first encountered, each member of a rival party is a random level. Roll 1d12: 1 Two levels lower than player characters, 2-3 One level lower than player characters, 4-9 Same level as player characters, 10-11 One level higher than player characters, 12 Two levels higher than player characters. Each time a rival party is re-encountered, there is a flat 1-in-12 chance that they've leveled up since the last encounter.

When determining reactions, roll 2d6, modified by Charisma: 2 worst, 3-6 bad, 7-11 good, 12 best. (Reactions are listed in best-to-worst order below for added inconvenience.)

Random Rival Adventuring Parties

1 A fantastically wealthy and idiotically foppish 0th-level dilettante is escorted through the underworld by a hyper-competent team of seasoned adventurers he's hired as "porters" and "torch-bearers" to show him around.

2 Handsome but generally clueless and romantically oblivious young man followed by entourage of wide-eyed and exceptionally talented young women in a variety of military and school uniforms who are obviously in love with him. The women will consider any female player characters or retainers to be dangerous rivals for the young man's affection, but some of them might develop competing crushes on a high-Charisma male character or retainer. Despite his general obliviousness, the young man is an unbelievably effective monster hunter, capable of hitting seemingly invulnerable opponents for massive amounts of damage.

3 A genius inventor leads his extended family of plucky adventurers. There's a cumulative 1-in-12 chance each per encounter that they've been transformed into anthropomorphic ducks by an experiment gone wrong. Each time they're encountered, they're out testing a new invention and insist on demonstrating it to/on the player characters. Depending on the reaction roll, the invention might be beneficial to the test subject, a random piece of anti-diluvean technology that the inventor will offer to sell to the player characters because he considers it a failure due to its lack of originality, completely ineffectual, or a dangerous weapon. (The inventor and his family are always friendly and affable - the reaction roll merely determines what kind of device they are friendly and affably trying to test on the player characters.)

4 A family of master criminals wearing black-and-white striped jumpsuits and black domino masks. Depending on the reaction roll, they might ask the characters to hold some treasure for them "until the heat dies down", open some locked doors and disarm some traps for the player characters as a demonstration of their skill, ask the player characters to join them on a "heist" before inevitably betraying them, or target the characters for a stick-up. When unloading goods from the characters during a betrayal or stick-up robbery, the criminals will prove to be far more interested in one random type of mundane object than in coinage or other treasure.

5 A team of adorable woodland creatures with whimsical names bearing miniature adventuring gear made from twigs, leaves, and acorns. They tend to like druids and elves and to dislike any other "giants" they encounter. Each time they're encountered, they're on a "mission" to rescue the victim of a kidnapping. Depending on the reaction roll, they might ask the player characters for help, attempt to detain them for questioning, believe that the characters are trying to thwart their rescue, or believe that one random character is the "victim" and attempt to return them to the nearest city the next time the party is asleep. They prefer to lay traps (pits, snares, deadfalls) and ambush the characters in their sleep rather than initiating direct combat. They have few hit points, but are hard to hit due to their small size and use of cover.

6 A hyper-intelligent talking dog leads a team of under-qualified amateur detectives. Each time they're encountered, they're searching for "clues" to solve a mystery. Depending on the reaction roll, they might ask the player characters for help, attempt to detain them for questioning, demand random items of mundane equipment as "clues", or be certain that the characters are guilty of the crime at the center of their "mystery".

7 A team of outcast mutant superheroes. Each has a garish spandex costume, a silly code-name, and a single MAGIC power they can use at will. Each time they're encountered, they're on a new "mission" to defeat a different "villain". Depending on the reaction roll, they might see the player characters as potential victims in need of protecting, as potential allies in their fight, as an unnecessary distraction from their "mission", or as their "villain" of the week.

8 Self-aggrandizing and belligerent "captain" wearing a yellow jumpsuit is accompanied by 1d3-1 intelligent and reasonable scientist advisors in blue jumpsuits and 1d12+1 security personnel in red jumpsuits. A reaction roll is only possible if advisors are present, otherwise the "captain" is unerringly hostile. The security personnel have only 1 hit point each and are incompetent combatants. When they're all defeated, the "captain" will teleport to safety. He always possesses a random piece of anti-diluvean technology that he drops on any roll of natural 1.

9 Mysterious figure in a space suit leads a team of technicolor plant- and fungus-humanoids. If the player character have lost a character or retainer to olive slime, purple moss, russet mold, or the like, that character's transformed body will definitely be present. Depending on the reaction roll, the figure may be willing to trade unique MATERIAL COMPONENTS for a proprietary medicine that cures the effects of such transformative threats, or may attempt to "recruit" player characters by transforming them.

10 A bright yellow giant is accompanied by technicolor spectral undead. If a player character or retainer has recently died, they will definitely be present. The giant is insane, always hungry, and utterly paranoid about the "ghosts" he claims follow him everywhere. Depending on the reaction roll, he may believe the player characters are "ghosts" and be terrified of them, warn the characters about the nearest actual undead threat, demand to eat all the characters' rations, or believe himself to be temporarily invulnerable and attempt to eat the player characters whole.

11 An angsty human barbarian with a random magic SWORD leads a group of half-animal, half-mineral monsters. Each creature has a natural attack that mimics the effect of a random spell, and makes a single weird alien sound that is nonetheless intelligible as conversation to the barbarian. He is determined to slay any "evil wizards" and destroy an "unholy magic items" he encounters, with predictable results for the player characters.

12 An undead anti-cleric with the power to "turn" living humans leads a party of undead crusaders to recover unholy relics for the glory of Hell. If a player character or retainer has recently died, they will definitely be present. The crusaders will demand the destruction of any holy symbols or divine magic items the characters posses, and will attempt to "convert" living characters and "recruit" recently dead ones to their anti-religion. Happily, they are also eager to trade to acquire any CURSED items in the characters' possession.