Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Learning from Boardgames - Tokaido and Things to do on a Journey

My Friday night group recently started playing Ryuutama, which got me thinking about the kinds of things you can do on a long journey. Which, in turn, got me thinking about the boardgame Tokaido.

The Tokaido game is named after a feudal-era Tokaido road between Kytoto and Edo. (Hiroshige also made a series of woodblock prints about traveling along the Tokaido road.) 

In the game, you take on the role of a traveler walking the road by foot. Your goal is to have the most satisfying journey possible. When boardgamers review Tokaido, they usually talk about how it's unusually non-competitive; there's not all that much any player can do to interfere with another's vacation. But as a roleplayer, what sticks out to me is that Tokaido is like a resource that can be referenced for ideas for things that player characters can do on a journey, like the kind you take in Ryuutama.

So what is there to do on a journey?

Leaving Edo from the second printing of Hiroshiga's The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido

Stopping in a village - In the Tokaido game, stopping in a village is synonymous with shopping at the local marketplace. And visiting the bazaar to see the unique wares each town has to offer is certainly one possible joy of traveling. It's easy to imagine giving each village its own specialty ware - this town sells nice hats, that one makes excellent pottery, etc.


Collecting souvenirs - Collecting mementos of your travels is a pretty common practice. But beyond picking up postcards or guidebooks or miniatures of the local landmarks, Tokaido rewards you for collecting different kinds of souvenirs on your trip. You get the most points for collecting equal numbers of clothes, art objects, small gifts, and local food and drinks.

Old school D&D gives experience for acquiring gold, and some OSR referees award experience for spending it, either in addition or instead. If each souvenir acted like a minor magical item, most players would happily buy them up, even if there was no XP reward for the purchase.


Working on a farm - Several activities in Tokaido cost money, but almost the only way to get more of it is to stop in at a local farm beside the road and do chores.

The British travel show Race Across the World has opportunities for the contestants to earn extra spending money by helping out farmers, working in restaurants, assisting the staff at tourist attractions, and doing various kinds of cleaning, from buses and boats to horses and elephants.

In a game like D&D or Ryuutama, its easy to imagine a job board somewhere in town asking for help slaying various monsters, or retrieving small treasures from nearby dungeons. There could even be wanted posters offering bounties on specific criminal NPCs. In my Friday night game, Josh also hit on the rather clever idea of the locals taking advantage of the travelers' itinerant status, by posting jobs like delivering packages or retrieving purchases at various other stopping points along the way.


Admiring the view - The Tokaido game has several scenic overlooks where you can enjoy taking in what the game calls a "panorama".  Stopping at an observation point to admire the scenery is a pretty classic thing to do on any kind long journey, whether a hike or a cross-country drive. You get the most points from enjoying the same panorama from several different vantage points.

Besides just looking, you could photograph the view, or draw a sketch or make a painting. In turn, you could photo, sketch, or paint a plant or animal, or I suppose, collect biological specimens - picking berries, gathering flowers, and of course, going fishing. The other thing you could do, at a particularly lovely natural trailhead or outdoor garden, would be go on a hike-within-your-hike to take in the whole site.


Bathing in a hot spring - Stop by a natural hot spring and enjoy a relaxing bath. This one is kind of culturally specific. Some parts of the world have natural hot springs, or some other tradition of collective bathing; others don't.

What else might be equivalent to going to a bathhouse? The characteristics that seem relevant here are that it's recreational and communal, possibly a bit intimate. When I think of communal relaxation, personally, I think of something like a picnic, brunch, high tea, or happy hour. Something where the ceremony of eating is at least as important as the food consumed.

Visiting some other sort of spa might fulfill the requirements I laid out; something like going for massages, or manicures, or for makeovers. For that matter, something like trying on dresses for a wedding or costumes for a celebration could work too.

Thinking of spas also makes me think of swimming pools and gymnasiums. In turn, that brings to mind participating in some sort of local sporting event. This could be something that tests each individuals against all others (like a race), or a tournament of one-on-one contests (like tennis or dueling), or even a team sport  I can think of a dozen examples, and you probably can too. Participating in a festival, stage play, or religious ceremony could also fulfill a similar function.


Praying at a temple - Stopping in at a temple and making a cash donation is another way to earn points in Tokaido. Panoramas and hot springs are free, but temples cost money, just like souvenirs and meals. The difference here is that you get to decide how much to donate. When shopping, different goods have different prices, but you also might be able to buy the cheapest item and still have it help you most (or you could get unlucky, and have the thing you really need by the pricey one). Mealtimes are similar. But at the temple, how much you spend is entirely up to you, though obviously more is better.

It's not hard to imagine pretty direct equivalents. If religious services don't quite fit the mood of your countryside, you could substitute in tossing coins into fountains or wishing wells (perhaps with a very small chance of being rewarded for the donation?) Anything that costs money, and that calls on you to be more of an audience than a participant, could fulfill a similar role as well. Touring a museum or art gallery, watching a concert or play, attending a reading or recital, watching a sport instead of playing one, witnessing some natural phenomenon.

These are all opportunities to earn experience by spending money, and to watch some local color rather than taking part in it. These entertainments are likely to be briefer. Helping to throw a local festival could take up an entire session, simply watching a parade go by should probably be much quicker for the players.


Meeting locals and fellow travelers - To my mind, this is one of the most interesting possibilities of travel in an RPG. In Tokaido, choosing to have an "encounter" is a bit like choosing to receive the effect of one of the other sites at random. You might get a souvenir, a piece of the view, some cash, even just victory points added to your score. But in a game like D&D or Ryuutama, you could, you know, actually talk to the people you meet. Instead of just archetypes - traveling merchant, shinto priest, guide, noble, samurai - you could meet individual NPCs.

In Tokaido, you only have encounters along the road. In D&D or Ryuutama, traveling encounters are still possible, but you'd expect to have more of them in villages or at the inn. (In Tokaido, the only people you meet at the inn are the other players.) I think there could also be a useful distinction between meeting locals and meeting fellow travelers. Locals are, by definition, only going to show up at a single site, and if you want to see one of them again, you probably have to go back to that town. Fellow travelers are more unpredictable; you could meet them along the road or at any site you stop by. You never know quite when to expect them.

D&D has its rival adventuring parties, but fellow travelers are different - not so much wandering monsters as wandering allies. At their worst, they're more like annoyances or nuisances. If they're "rivals" it's more in the sense of them wanting to be better at traveling than you are. They want to get to the next town before you, or be the first ones to spot all the rare birds along the way, or show off their latest purchase that you didn't get. But most fellow travelers won't be rivals. Some will be friends, some will simply have some eccentricity that makes them interesting or memorable. Sometimes circumstances might force you to cooperate, or pool your resources, or spend time in close proximity, perhaps sharing stories to pass the time. Sometimes you'll simply be passing through at the same time.


Staying at an inn - In Tokaido, every player has to stop at every inn. In D&D or Ryuutama, it probably won't take much convincing for most players to want some time in a hotel after several nights of camping by the side of the road, especially if the hotel avoids any hazards, or permits a better quality of sleep or healing. Any kind of checkpoint or waystation, any place where tolls are collected or papers are presented could serve a similar function as well, albeit with a less friendly atmosphere. Tokaido rewards the player who arrives at the inn last, on top of the rewards that you probably accrue in the process of taking the slowest path and having the most stops along the way.


Eating a good meal - Whenever I think of Tokaido, I think of a vacation my grad school roommate once told me about, where she and her aunt planned to spend a couple weeks visiting different villages around her prefecture, trying out the local udon specialty. Apparently every village has its own traditional style, just a bit different from its neighbors.  

(Later, in a different grad program, I learned about the idea of folk culture, where some way of doing things started out the same or very similar within a region, but then the people who do that thing in each particular place start handing down minor changes to the original way, from teacher to student, generation after generation, so that the traditions of each place slowly drift apart, a process that reminds me a little of island biology.)

The idea of enjoying food from other places is pretty well accepted as one of the benefits of traveling. There are entire series about it on the Food Network, the Travel Channel, even NPR. Describing the unique flavor of the local cuisine is a simple but visceral way to make a place feel different and special. There might not be any mechanical benefit, within your game, to eating at a restaurant instead of by a campfire, but this is still an opportunity to communicate about what kind of people live in each place, what sort of hospitality they offer. And the emotional connections we all have to both food and the sharing of food means that a well-described meal really is its own reward.

Tokaido board game logo

Traveling in the Tokaido game is about following a road dotted with landmarks and deciding which ones to visit. With one exception, there is no hierarchy, and each landmark is as important as the next. This is in contrast to both D&D and Ryuutama, where towns and dungeons tend to be much more important than other sites you can pass alone the way.

I think this is because each landmark has precisely one purpose in Tokaido, while in D&D and Ryuutama, the "size" of each site is variable. We could think of size here as the number of rooms in a dungeon or major buildings in a town - or as the number of potential encounters to be had at each site. Either way, in both D&D and Ryuutama, players spend much more time at some locations than others. Some spots along the road will be like a single room to explore, or a single encounter with a monster or NPC, but others will be both larger and more time consuming. A small town or dungeon might involve far more rooms and encounters than all the singletons put together; a megadungeon or city might be larger than all the other sites of any size combined.

The closest anyone can come to interfering with another players' agenda in Tokaido is to stop at a spot they might like, forcing them to pass it by and go on to the next one, making them arrive at the inn a little faster. Inns in Tokaido are a bit like the various "safe havens" that appear in various roleplaying games, but they still have only a single purpose (enjoying a meal), rather than allowing a full range of downtime activities.

The result of each landmark having only one interaction is that this keeps you moving along the road. There's no temptation to stay at a single site, exploring all the possibilities it contains. Instead, each stop is brief, and the journey continues.

I'm not sure it's possible (or even desirable) to partition things quite so strictly in a roleplaying game, but I think it is worth trying to emulate the idea that there are many possible pleasures, each stop contains only a few of them, and greater fulfillment will come from continuing onward to further sites than from delving deeper into the offerings of a single location.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Decadent Miscellany - American Mesmerism, Gothic Marxism, Haunted Mansion, Wedding Ruins, Rich Warehouses



When Mesmerism Came to America
Max Nelson
New York Review of Books

"Control is a coveted possession. The mesmerists and skeptics all seem to want it; at any rate, they want to consider themselves rational and self-possessed enough not to fall under anyone else’s. During this brief, strange moment, mesmerizing another person - or seeing someone get mesmerized, or denouncing mesmerists as charlatans - became a way of stockpiling control for one's own use. At whose expense? Unidentified, enslaved West Indian laborers planters tried to mesmerize; female factory workers."

"Mesmerists made gains in America not by denying that they exploited credulous subjects but by advertising that they had found a new technique for doing precisely that. Once calling people 'credulous' emerged as a way to justify singling them out as test subjects, mesmerists could compete over experimenting with, and hoping to control, the credulity of others. They became businesslike experts in the profitable arts of human manipulation. Two of mesmerism’s early adopters were plantation owners and factory managers."




A Thousand Lost Worlds: Notes on Gothic Marxism
Adam Turl
Red Wedge Magazine

"The valorization of the realm of a culture’s ghosts and phantasms as a significant and rich field of social production rather than a mirage to be dispelled. The valorization of a culture’s detritus and trivia as well as its strange and marginal practices."

"A general Gothic dialectic is born of a series of cultural contradictions that echo the structural contradictions of capitalist relations and production. These contradictions find expression in the mediated cultural superstructure. The material convulsions of capital constantly create new spaces for semi-autonomous social and cultural relations - only to tear them asunder. Each of these is a trauma to the social unconscious."

"The initial impetus for the Gothic in art and literature stemmed from the marginalization of medieval forms by bourgeois relations and industrialization. The Gothic castle and the abbey stood in ruins, projecting both a nostalgia and fear of the past - things that were lost but also alien and threatening to modern life. This dynamic is the cultural echo of combined and uneven development. The hard fought autonomy of the small businessman is destroyed as capital is consolidated in larger units. 'Self-made men' are proletarianized - as far fewer proletarians become 'self-made men.' In the process thousands of little gothic worlds are created. In the shells of factories, in the empty union halls, in the empty mansions of declassed small capitalists, in the photographs of failed revolutions and in the broadsheets of all but forgotten sects."



The Heiress to a Gun Empire Built a Mansion Forever Haunted by the Blood Money that Built It
Pamela Haag
Smithsonian

"Sarah Winchester had inherited a vast fortune off of guns. She built her house with shifts of 16 carpenters who were paid three times the going rate and worked 24 hours a day, every day, from 1886 until Sarah’s death in 1922. Winchester wove and unwove eternally. She built, demolished and rebuilt. Winchester hastily sketched designs on napkins or brown paper for carpenters to build additions, towers, cupolas or rooms that made no sense and had no purpose, sometimes only to be plastered over the next day."

"Her building is a ghost story of the American gun. Winchester became terrified that her misfortunes, especially the death of her husband and one-month old daughter, were cosmic retribution from all the spirits killed by Winchester rifles. A medium told her that she would be haunted by the ghosts of Winchester rifle victims unless she built, non-stop - perhaps at ghosts' direction, for their pleasure, or perhaps as a way to elude them. Haunted by conscience over her gun blood fortune and seeking either protection or absolution, Winchester lived in almost complete solitude, in a mansion designed to be haunted."



Wedding Photography Collides with Ruin Porn
Michael T Luogno
New York Times

"About half of all marriages end up in ruins. A few start out that way. For some couples, abandoned buildings - train stations, warehouses and century-old churches, often found in declining or deindustrialized cities - are proving the perfect haunting aesthetic for their weddings."

"Logistically one of the biggest issues is that a lot of these buildings don’t really have addresses anymore. Ruins also change or sometimes disappear altogether."

"This method of gazing at such areas of a city doesn’t always examine the larger social and economic forces taking place in cities. Still, the forlorn sense of isolation sparks curiosity for some couples, along with a desire to bring former functions back to abandoned structures, even temporarily, as a way to honor them."


 
Uber-Warehouses for the Ultra-Rich
The Economist

"The world’s rich are increasingly investing in expensive stuff, and 'freeports' are becoming their repositories of choice. Their attractions are similar to those offered by offshore financial centres: security and confidentiality, not much scrutiny, the ability for owners to hide behind nominees, and an array of tax advantages. Because of the confidentiality, the value of goods stashed in freeports is unknowable. Though much of what lies within is perfectly legitimate, the protection offered from prying eyes ensures that they appeal to kleptocrats and tax-dodgers as well as plutocrats. The goods they stash in the freeports range from paintings, fine wine and precious metals to tapestries and even classic cars."

"The early freeports were drab warehouses. But as the contents have grown glitzier, so have the premises themselves. The idea is to turn freeports into places the end-customer wants to be seen in, the best alternative to owning your own museum. The newest facilities are dotted with private showrooms, where art can be shown to potential buyers. The wealthy are increasingly using freeports as a place where they can rub shoulders and trade fine objects with each other. It is not uncommon for a painting to be swapped for, say, a sculpture and some cases of wine, with all the goods remaining in the freeport after the deal and merely being shifted between the storage rooms of the buyer’s and seller’s handling agents."

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Actual Play - 5e Undermountain - Goblins vs Vampires!

Session 7

Raku Chihuly - dragonborn guid artisan, 4th level battlesmith artificer - played by Emily
Willibald Honrblower - halfling noble, 4th level college of lore bard - played by Steve
Nehryx - centaur outlander, 4th level brute fighter - played by Corey
Demic - minotaur entertainer, 4th level oath of the dragonlord paladin - played by Ben
Crow - tabaxi acolyte of Nuula, 3rd level swashbuckler rogue - played by Lindsey
Owyn Lavashield - hill dwarf hermit, 2nd level circle of the moon druid - played by Eli

After they defeated the masters of Castle Cragmaw, the adventurers returned to the village of Alpenshire to enjoy some well-earned rest. Travelers reported that the mountain trails were currently free of bandits. All goblin sightings showed them heading deeper into the Grosseberg mountain range. Black Iris received a number of mysterious overnight deliveries, and her storehouses were soon almost overflowing with merchandise.

For several weeks, the group members trained in their abilities and began spending some of their treasure. Raku turned the frog statue she'd found into a figurine of wondrous power, able to turn into a living frog and deliver messages. Willibald cobbled himself a pair of boots of elven kind, which would help him scout ahead of the party more stealthily. After being introduced by Raku, Nehryx was able to commission the artisan's guild to enchant his mighty greatsword to make it a weapon +1. Demic commissioned the guild as well, but he had them make a statue of his revered Dragon Goddess so that he could begin consecrating a shrine. Crow and Owyn spent time at the temple for the Nature Goddess they both revered.

All the same, they began to feel a bit of wanderlust. Willibald still longed to show up the Brandybuck family, who he believed may have sabotaged his vineyard. Nehryx and Demic enjoyed their status as local heroes, but longed to venture back into the mountains. Together, the party agreed to investigate a the legendary Under-Mountain in heart of the mountain range. The map they'd retrieved from Castle Cragmaw seemed to show one path there. The party convinced Black Iris to let them use some of her secret smuggling trails for extra security. Owyn Lavashield also located some fellow dwarves in Alpenshire, and persuaded them to write him a letter of introduction that he could use to let the party stay in any of the dwarven mining villages that dot the Grosseberg mountains.

For two more weeks, the group traveled the mountains, sticking the Black Iris's smuggling trails when they could, staying the night in dwarven mining towns when one was available. Their last stay was in Dworfsborro, only a half day from the fabled Under-Mountain. The next day they arrived at the entrance to the ancient dungeon. It appeared to be just a simple mining elevator. At the bottom they found themselves in a room filled with loose sand and broken shields. On one wall, written in blood, they saw a dwarven warning that a Mad Mage waited somewhere beyond a place called the Pillar Forest.

There seemed to be only one exit from this first room, a dog-legged passageway that eventually led to a wider hall. This hall ran to the west, and its walls were decorated with bas relief images of demons. The skeleton of a birdman lay in the middle of the hall, pointing at one of the demons. The group felt suspicious of whatever might have killed the bird creature. Demic investigated the skeleton but saw no obvious signs of what killed it. Checking the wall the creature was pointing at, he thought he could make out some loose stonework. Nehryx helped ram a shoulder against the wall, and a secret doorway opened!

Beyond the secret door, a curving and roughly dug tunnel led into a strangely slanted room. It was as though it had been build on a different floorplan (and a different definition of "down") - and it was half full of fetid water that smelled like sewage. While the others held back, brave Nehryx waded in, and was attacked by a blob of grey protoplasm, the same color as the dirty water. The ooze lashed at Nehryx with its tentacles, but with support from his friends who used arrows and magic from the doorway, the monster was quickly defeated. Acid from the ooze sizzled against Nehryx's new sword, but couldn't harm its fine magical craftsmanship. Pleased with his purchase, he wiped the blade clean.

After the excitement was over, Nehryx spotted an alcove with a statue in it. Demic investigated and discovered a statue of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The statue was carved of black stone. One arm had broken off, and it was covered in melted wax and other stains. It had a screw on head that could be removed so that candles could be placed inside, allowing light to spill out of the Creature's eyes and mouth. Demic thought this was really cool, so he placed the rather heavy statue in his backpack, determined to use its special feature as a template for some additional decorations devoted to his dragon goddess.

After really thoroughly checking the room for additional secrets, ("There's got to be more to this place! It's too weird to just be standalone!"), they returned to the hall with the demon carvings on the walls. At the end of the hall, they descended down a double-wide staircase into an octagonal room filled with many pillars. The group theorized this might be the so-called "Pillar Forest" the graffiti near the entrance had mentioned. Several party members felt an unnerving sense that someone might be nearby, or might have snuck away just as they were entering. They spent awhile spreading out across the room to look behind every pillar to make sure no one could surprise them. They saw the skeleton of an enormous constrictor snake coiled around one pillar - and Demic smashed it with a rock. Owyn also found more bloody dwarven graffiti, this time warning of "certain death" down the south exit.

Besides the way the party had entered, the room had three other exits, all of them up a staircase, making this room a low-point within this part of the dungeon. Willibald climbed each staircase to peek ahead. He saw a short dead-end passage to the north, a hall lined with alcoves to the west, and a very long passageway to the south.

Gains
100 XP (grey ooze)
Creature of the Black Lagoon statue (no monetary value)


Session 8

Raku
Willibald
Nehryx
Demic
Crow

Taking stock of their options, the party agreed to avoid the passageway that was marked as "certain death". They felt curious about the alcoves and decided to investigate, but immediately felt worried about what might be hidden just out of sight. A single burnt out torch lying in the middle of the hall increased their anxiety. Willibald use a mage hand to float a lighted torch down the hall, and light seemed to reflect back from within the alcoves - mirrors! Raku decided to detect magic and saw that a couple of the mirrors were magical, and based on their placement, she thought one of the mirrors at the end of the hall might be magic as well.

As the group debated what to do about this situation, three giant centipedes entered the hall crawling on the ceiling and rapidly approached them! The centipedes seemed especially drawn to the smell of sewage clinging to Demic's and Nehryx's fur. Unfortunately for the insects, their chosen meals were quite capable of defending themselves. The party quickly dispatched one of the creatures and the other two began to scuttle away, but another was slain before it could escape. Demic and Nehryx both thought the creatures might possess some kind of poison, but since they'd withstood its effects, they weren't entirely sure what it would do to someone affected by it.

Still worried about the possible effects of the magical mirrors, Demic led the group the rest of the way down the hall. As he passed the final two mirrors, he looked in one and saw a distorted, funhouse reflection of himself that pointed behind him, he turned to see a similar reflection in the other mirror, then turned again - the distorted reflection was standing in the hall with him! Nehryx charged the rest of the length of the hall to help his friend. He wiped out the mysterious mirror creature in a single cut, but a mirror Nehryx hopped out to confront him too. Willibald magically shattered one of the mirrors. Crow ran past, hoping the spell might be broken too, but a semi-transparent and very angry mirror Crow appeared as well! Fortunately, with Nehryx's help, both reflections were quickly defeated. Willibald went up and down the hall shattering all the non-magical mirrors. He discovered that the other magical mirrors that Raku had identified were simply illusions, with no mirror present at all! Behind one, he found a bronze mask depicting the face of the Mad Mage. Raku carefully broke the remaining magical mirror without allowing herself to be reflected, then collected the magical glass for future study.

Past the hall, passages branched off to the north and south. Willibald scouted ahead, and thought that the northern passage had only a single dead-end room, while the southern branch led to a complex of several rooms. Entering into the rooms to the south, the group met a half-dozen goblins who were amusing themselves with a human skeleton they'd turned into a crude marionette. The skeleton looked very old, and a broken shield in the corner identified its bearer as "NIM - RATH".

The goblins were impressed that the party had fought their way through the "bad mirrors", and learned that the goblins never used that hall. Upon further questioning, the goblins told a sad tale of how they used to have a good life up on the surface, but a series of tragedies had chased them down into the Under-Mountain, where they still had no relief from their troubles. Once they had a simple life, living in a cave, robbing travelers, led by a bugbear boss. Then someone came in and killed their boss, flooded their cave, and stole back all spoils of their banditry. "It's probably that darned Black Iris," one of the goblins opined, "she never gives us no peace!" The survivors of that disaster had moved into a castle with some of their friends ... until one day someone massacred and entire dining hall full of goblins, and again, killed their newest bugbear boss.

The party members exchanged meaningful glaces with one another. "Gee, that's so sad." So now the goblins had resolved to leave the cruel surface world behind, but they were troubled again by a group of Draculas living to the north, who gave them all kind of hassle down here as well. The party felt alarmed by the report of Draculas, and took pity on the poor goblins, who at this point just wanted to live in peace far away from humans. Willibald and Raku used some simple illusions to create a disco ball, flashing lights, and ambient music playing "The Hustle". The goblins danced to celebrate their newly forged friendship, and got their skeleton puppet to disco dance, chanting "Nim-rath, nim-rath, nim-rath!" in time to the music.

Eventually, the goblins took the party to meet their newest bugbear bosses, who were also pleased to hear that someone else was going to kill the Draculas and save them the trouble. The bugbears agreed to deliver "big treasure" and to avoid bothering the town of Dworfsborro if the party was successful in clearing out the area to the north. The speed and apparent generosity of the bugbears' agreement may have struck some as inherently suspicious.

The goblins meanwhile were enthusiastically and unreservedly excited about this new alliance. They explained the layout of their group's "turf", which included several more rooms south of the Pillar Forest. The party worked out that the Draculas were somewhere to the north of that. But wait, how did the goblins get to and from the Pillar Forest if they never used the mirrored hallway? What about the sign warning of "certain death" to the south? The goblins couldn't contain their laughter - "hahaha! I can't believe you guys fell for that!"

Eventually, the goblins took the group to an empty room where they could camp for the night. It was the dead-end room Willibald had identified earlier. The floor was littered with trash, burnt torches, empty potion bottles, empty wine bottles of Chateau Brandybuck. In the distance, the party could hear the goblins disco-ing long into the night.

Gains
1200 XP (two carrion crawlers 450/each, three shadows 100/each)
bronze mask of the Mad Mage (50 gp)
sample of broken magical glass
.
.
.
Session 9

Willibald
Nehryx

The next day, the rest of the party stayed behind to disco with the goblins, while Willibald and Nehryx planned to scout out the so-called "Draculas". Based on the legends and folksongs Willibald had heard, and backed up by Demic's religious knowledge, vampires were believed to be incredibly powerful and dangerous, possibly moreso than the goblins seemed to think. The party was suspicious that something might not be as it seemed.

Willibald and Nehryx asked the bugbear bosses for their bravest goblin warrior to accompany them on their scouting mission, but the bosses were not entirely receptive to this request. "Ha! No. Tell you what, we'll give you our most expendable goblin." They were introduced to Pincushion, a goblin who sounded suspiciously like Don Knotts. When asked how he got his name, Pincushion explained that on several occasions, he'd somehow managed to shoot himself in his own butt. "Now they only let me have this one arrow..."

Nehryx and Willibald encouraged Pincushion to scout head as they went back through the Pillar Forest and into the northern hall. "Hot dog! I'm the leader, I'm leading the way!" Their first stop was a room just on the edge of Dracula territory. Listening at the door, Willibald heard voices coming from inside, so they steeled themselves for a fight. The room proved to be deserted though, and the voices were coming from narrow air shafts in the ceiling. Who knew where else in the dungeon those connected to? They also spotted some eye holes cut into the south wall. Peering through showed a view of the hall with the bas relief demons - in fact, the eye holes were probably positioned to be one of the demon's eyes.

The most interesting feature of the room though was a glowing sword nailed halfway through an upturned wooden table. The table itself was smeared with dried blood, and a skeletal forearm lay on the floor beneath. Nehryx held back the excitable Pincushion while Willibald investigated. He used mage hand to try to dislodge the sword from the table. It released easily, almost as if it wanted to be held, and flew toward Willibald's outstretched hand. He managed to dodge just in time, and the glowing blade clattered across the floor behind him. Willibald heard a scraping sound as the sword dragged itself across the floor toward him. He ducked behind the table, and the sword flung itself into the wood so hard it actually stabbed him coming through the other side! Deeply suspicious of the sword's apparent eagerness, Willibald offered the weapon to Pincushion, who felt no doubt or concern whatsoever. "Oh boy!' he exclaimed, waving the sword wildly from side to side, like a toddler with a sparkler, "My very own sword! Look out world, here comes Pincushion!"

A quick test revealed that it was impossible for Pincushion to let go of the sword, although the redoubtable goblin didn't see this as a drawback. "Set it down? I'm never lettin' this baby out of my sight! Hiyah! Ha! Take that!" Nehryx further spun the advantages of a blade that no enemy could ever knock from one's hands, while both he and Willibald kept a safe distance from Pincushion's enthusiastic practice swinging.

Past this room, the northern passageway branched again, with routes going east and west. Deciding to take the much longer passage to the west, Nehryx, Willibald, and Pincushion arrived in a room with black bone-covered pillars, its floor covered in the bones of goblins and some kind of beaked snake-like creature. Two large floating brains with nasty beaks of their own and dozes of wafting tentacles floated out of ambush positions and approached the two friends and their erstwhile sidekick. Pincushion rushed forward, eager to try out his new weapon, and was summarily decapitated by one of the floating brains, which crunched noisily on his skull. Nehryx had much better success with his greatsword, and Willibald used a combination of crossbow and magic to dispatch the other.

When they returned to the goblin hideout, Raku had just finished teaching the goblins to limbo under a rope.

Gains
1650 XP (cursed sword 4th level "medium" encounter 250, two grell 700/each)

Losses

Pincushion the goblin



Session 10

Raku
Willibald
Nehryx
Demic
Crow
Owyn

After Nehryx and Willibald's scouting mission, the group was certain they knew the way to the territory controlled by the alleged "Draculas" and they were eager to learn more about the supposed monsters. After bidding a fond farewell to their disco friends, the party passed through the Pillar Forest and went north, then east, into a new region of the dungeon. At the end of the passageway, they found an alcove with more eye holes, and they realized they'd found a secret door into the entry chamber. Though there was no way to open it from the side of the mining elevator, they had discovered yet another hidden connector.

Backtracking slightly, they took a northern branching passage, and opened a door into room with three graffiti-covered statues ... and a crowd of vampires?! Half a dozen of the vampires were average human sized, obviously wearing white greasepaint, and simple black bandit's outfits that had been modified to look a bit like tuxedos. Another was a much larger man dressed much the same, and two were absolutely flawless images of Dracula! The smaller "vampires" brandished knives at the party. "Blah, blah!" they shouted, "I vant to suck your blood!" One seemed confused, ("I like to eat the peanut butter first!"), but he was quickly silenced by the others. "Blah!"

Nehryx rushed the crowd of smaller vampires, and rapidly struck down two of them. The others tried to run, but Nehryx managed to grab one before he could get away. The other party members concentrated on the surprisingly convincing Draculas, who unnervingly seemed to heal every injury only moments after it was dealt. One of these fled away too, but the party finally defeated the other. As it fell, it turned into a grey humanoid with fluid, clay-like skin. Another doppelganger, like they'd encountered at Castle Cragmaw! Now that it was dead, they could see that their attacks had injured it, but it had been using its shapechanging abilities to conceal the damage.

They questioned their prisoner, who admitted his name was Tony, and that he was not really a vampire. He belonged to a gang that used to be called the Jets, until their leader, Benny, met an actress and agreed to her plan to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies by disguising themselves as vampires. Tony was not altogether sold on this plan, ("I mean, it used to be, when you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way ... but now we're supposed to just give that up?"), but thought it was working pretty well against the goblins. Tony was also not enamored with the actress, Victoria, who in addition to leading the bandits into the Under-Mountain and rebranding their image, had also started building "a really gross flesh monster" in her dressing room.

Tony was able to explain a bit of the layout of the gang's territory. To the west were a small number of hangout rooms. To the north were a couple of hidden chambers they sometimes used for ambushes, ("plus there's an honest to goodness vampire coffin in there! it's just empty though"), and further north, a throne room where Victoria was likely to be found. Beyond that, Tony knew about a hallway filled with statues that led into a larger room controlled by a trio of lions with human faces.

With this information, and a tied-up Tony bringing up the rear, the group headed west into the vampire gang's hangout rooms. They found the surviving gang members hiding behind an overturned card table. Benny leapt out to fight the party, but was clearly outmatched, and then Willibald suggested that he surrender. Confronted with both the logic of his situation and Willibald's magical persuasion, Benny readily agreed and encouraged the other bandits to give themselves up. He helpfully offered to turn over his accumulated loot to the party, and agreed to hurry to Dworfsborro to turn himself in to the appropriate authorities. Before jogging off, Benny also confirmed the layout of the other section of the gang's turf, and again warned the party of the danger posed by Victoria and her "gross flesh zombie thing". The party debated what to do with the other bandits, but didn't feel able to take custody of a group of prisoners at the moment, and worried that they'd just escape, and possibly lead Benny astray, if they tried asking them to go to Dworfsborro. In the end, they released Tony and the other three bandits, on the promise that the Jets give up stealing.

Gains
1300 XP (doppelganger 700, six bandits 25/each, bandit captain 450)
21 gp in surrendered bandit pocket change
96 gp in bandit treasure (2 gp in copper, 9 gp in silver, 85 gp in gold)
dwarven rune ring (25 gp, given to Owyn)


Session 11

Raku
Willibald
Nehryx
Demic
Crow
Owyn

As Benny jogged off toward Dworfsborro and the remaining bandits dispersed, the party returned to the room with the three graffitied statues and headed north, following the directions provided by their informants. In the northern passage, they spotted a pair of hidden doors.

Pressing his ear to the wall, Willibald heard someone banging around inside. The group burst in through both doors, and saw a giant, picture-perfect Frankenstein's Monster. Could this be Victoria's creature?! Their multiple attacks quickly subdued the monster. Upon death, it was revealed to be the other doppelganger from before. It's body showed both its previous injuries and the newest wounds.

Surveying the room, they saw that this was a bandit hideout, filled with bedrolls. In a side room, they found an ancient wooden coffin on a stone plinth. This must be the vampire coffin! Nehryx, Demic, and Owyn investigated the coffin by tapping on it and then using several magical senses. Eventually Owyn opened the lid and found it empty. The bottom of the coffin was covered in dirt, with a single vial of holy water inside.

Following a westward passage, they arrived at a more ornate looking doorway. Perhaps this was the throne room? Inside, they found large throne room. They had enetered just beside the large throne; made entirely of bone. In the middle of the room, they saw a small dragon skeleton surrounded by broken crystal or glass. Raku and Demic were both unsettled by the disrespectful treatment of a dragon's remains, and vowed to carry it back to Dworfsborro after they finished with the bandits. They saw another door just on the other side of the throne, and two more at the far side of the room. The group decided to check the nearest doorway.

Inisde, they found Victoria's dressing room! The walls were covered with posters of Victoria from various plays she'd appeared in. They saw her dressing table, costume trunk, changing screen, and of course, the woman herself, and her giant horrible flesh monster. Victoria was dressed in a much better version of the other bandits' costumes. The monster was an awful stitched together mess of various scraps of skin. "Blah blah!" intoned Victoria, "Who dares invade my sanctum? Blah! Get them, Frankie! Destroy them, my pet!"

For a few rounds, Victoria taunted the party as they struggled against her terrible creation ... until Demic channeled his deity to roar like a dragon, terrifying the woman. "Oh god, we're all doomed! He's gonna go crazy! I can't control him! He's going berserk for sure!" Ordinarily, she would have fled the room, but she was too afraid of Demic to try to run past him, and so just scrabbled backward against the wall. "Please! I surrender! Just take me in! Don't let him kill me!" Owyn changed shape to become a dire wolf and kept her cornered while the others fought. The monster, Frankie, did not end up going berserk, and eventually, the party managed to put down the horrible creature.

With Victoria in manacles, the group checked the side room and retrieved the remaining five bandits. The bandits volunteered to give up their life of crime, but the party tied their hands and prepared to lead them back to Dworfsborro to face dwarven law.

They also gathered the bones, realizing as they did that this was a wyvern, an animal that was related to dragons but lacked their noble intelligence. The broken glass appeared to be the remains of a display case that probably hung from the ceiling. Demic thought that he could begin consecrating a grotto to his Dragon Goddess in Dworfsborro, and this skeleton could be respectfully interred there.

When the party and their prisoners arrived in Dworfsborro, they found that Benny had turned himself in, and the group received a reward from the dwarven authorities for the capture of the seven gang members.

Gains
3075 XP (doppelganger 700, bandit captain 450, flesh golem 1800, five bandits 25/each)
22 gp surrendered bandit pocket change
1025 gp reward for captured bandits


Notes

Before the start of session 7 up there, I went ahead and totaled up everyone's experience and treasure from their previous adventures. The totals below don't include any cash that Nehryx and Demic made by selling used goblin weapons, and also doesn't include any deductions for purchases of armor, healing potions, and the like. I did go ahead and subtract out the cost of their magic items though - 500 gp each for Raku and Willibald to craft their own, 1000 gp for Nehryx to commission one, and 750 gp for Demic to commission his statue.

Raku - 3350 xp, 621 gp, figurine of wondrous power (same power as silver falcon)
Willibald - 4200 xp, 900 gp, boots of elven kind
Nehryx - 4200 xp, 400 gp, greatsword +1
Demic - 3225 xp, 650 gp, statue of dragon goddess
Crow - 2975 xp, 1275 gp
Owyn - 1850 xp, 996 gp

The party also started out collectively owning 3 healing potions that they'd found as treasure and not used, a scroll of revivify, and a scroll of silence. I think at the start of the next session I'll encourage them to officially divvy those up so that someone has responsibility for tracking when they get used up.

By my count, each party member got 194 gp from this adventure (1164 ÷ 6), Demic got a broken statue and co-ownership of a wyvern skeleton, Willibald got a brone mask, Owyn got a dwarven ring and a vial of holy water, and Raku got some magic glass and is the other owner of the skeleton.

So by the end of all of this, everyone's experience and cash are higher:

Raku - 9025 xp, 815 gp
Willibald - 11525 xp, 1094 gp
Nehryx - 11525 xp, 594 gp
Demic - 8900 xp, 844 gp
Crow - 8650 xp, 1469 gp
Owyn - 6325 xp, 1190 gp

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

House Rule - DCC Crits by Dice Type

In Dungeon Crawl Classics, an attack roll of natural 20 is always a critical hit. An attack roll of natural 1 is always a fumble.

As they level up, characters gain an extra action dice that they can use to make attacks. The extra dice starts at d14, then improves to d16, and then d20. It's impossible to crit with a d14 or d16. The chance of a fumble is higher, but not as much as you might expect (from 5% with a d20 to around 6% with a d16 and 7% with a d14).

Those aren't the only non-standard dice types in DCC though. There's also d24 and d30. When should you get a critical hit with them?

The rules don't specifically say. All giants in DCC use d24 attack dice, and crit on any roll of 20 or higher. (This gives them about a 21% chance of a critical hit on each attack!) But that's a special ability that's explicitly called out in every giant's monster stats. So I don't think player characters should get the exact same benefit from rolling a d24.

On the other hand, I don't think players should only be limited to critting on a roll of 24 on a d24 or 30 on a d30. The chance of a fumble on those dice goes down (to around 4% and 3%, respectively) but I think the chance of a critical hit should go up. The fun of rolling a larger dice should be accompanied by the fun of a better chance at critting. So how do we accomplish that?

My suggestion is this. When a player rolls a d24 attack dice, they score a critical hit on a natural 20 and a natural 24. So they improve from a 1-in-20 chance to 1-in-12, or around 8%. When a player rolls a d30 attack dice, they crit on a natural 20, 24, or 30. Their chance increases to 1-in-10, or 10%.

If you're using the rules for fleeting luck, I would be happy to say you earn a temporary point of Luck on any roll of 20, 24, or 30 as well.


What about warriors? In DCC warriors and dwarves can spend a point of Luck to convert a fumble into an ordinary miss. Warriors also get an increased critical range. At 1st level, a warrior scores a critical hit on any natural 19 or 20. This improves to 18, 19, 20 at 5th level and to 17, 18, 19, 20 at 9th. Along the way, their chances of critting go from 10% to 15% to 20% on each attack.

How should this interact with the larger dice types? I would say that a warrior still gets their expanded crit range, and the extra chance from using the larger dice, but doesn't get to expand their range any further. So a 1st level warrior rolling a d30 gets a critical hit on a 19, 20, 24, and 30, but not on a 23 or a 29. Their chance of critting improves to around 13%, but not to 20%.

The reason is more clear at higher levels. If we allowed a 9th level warrior to increase their crit range on each new dice, then on a d30, they'd score a critical hit on any roll from 17-24, and again from 27-30, a 40% chance of a crit! This would make rolling a 25 or 26 weirdly disappointing. It would also take away some of the fun of critical hits, which is that they're unpredictable. You never want to expect crits so regularly that you become disappointed when you don't get one. I like critical hits, and for me, having them happen almost half the time would ruin one of the things I like about them.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Ghosts of Tortoises

In a class I took on museum studies, we read Tangible Things, a companion volume to a Harvard University museum exposition of the same name. The purpose of the both the book and the original exhibit is to showcase objects that potentially cross the traditional classificatory boundaries that define the different types of museums, archives, and libraries.

For example, a tortoise shell that's both a zoological specimen and, because it's been carved with graffiti, a historical document from the 19th century whaling industry.

The attention to systems of classification was interesting, but my favorite parts of the book were the 16 profiles of chosen objects. And my favorite of those was the story of the Galapagos Tortoise shell.


The Galapagos Islands are named for the tortoises, and not, as I had assumed, the other way around.

The priamry human inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands were various kinds of sailors. English pirates used the islands as a base for launching raids on Spanish cargo ships starting in the 17th century. In the late 18th century, the pirates were mostly replaced by British whalers, and after the war of 1812, American whalers were the most common 19th century visitors.

They all loved eating tortoises, apparently considering tortoise meat to be one of the most delicious culinary delicacies available anywhere on earth. It wasn't just their favorite thing to eat while sailing. It was their favorite thing to eat, period.

Charles Darwin at tortoise meat, but was apparently unmoved by its flavor.

Galapagos Tortoise skeleton via Atlas Obscura

Sailors carried "small" 75 pound tortoises back to their boats by wearing them as backpacks. Larger tortoises had oars put underneath them and were carried back like a palanquin atop the shoulders of porters, or a coffin being borne by pallbearers.

It was routine for ships to bring hundreds of tortoises aboard on a single visit. They may have removed as many as ten-thousand tortoises per year during the peak of the whaling trade.

Tortoises that were too large to carry were turned into walking signboards by sailors who cut graffiti into their shells, like messages carved on treetrunks.

Herman Melville hunted tortoises while whaling, and wrote a novel about tortoise hunting. Somehow he lost the novel, he rewrote it as a short story, which was published as "The Encantadas".

A giant tortoise of the Ghost Archipelago via The Renaissance Troll

"The Encantadas" or "The Enchanted Isles" is what sailors used to call the Galapagos. The currents running between the islands are variable, and mist is common, creating the illusion of haunted islands that appear and disappear, or rearrange their locations between visits.

More than going to hell, sailors who had been to the Galapagos feared being reincarnated ... as tortoises.

Later in his life, Melville reported being haunted by guilt over tortoise hunting, and being unable to stop himself from imaging tortoises following him wherever he went. The ones he saw in nature, in parks and gardens, mostly made him sad, but he was terrified of the ghostly visions of tortoises he saw emerging from the shadows at parties in rich people's houses.

"Such is the vividness of my memory, or the magic of my fancy, that often in scenes of social merriment, and especially at revels held by candle-light in old-fashioned mansions, so that shadows were thrown into the further recesses of an angular and spacious room, making them put on a look of haunted undergrowth of lonely woods, I have drawn the attention of my comrades by my fixed gaze and sudden change of air, as I have seemed to see, slowly emerging from those imagined solitudes, and heavily crawling along the floor, the ghost of a gigantic tortoise."

The vengeful ghosts of turtles via Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai
 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Map & Miniature Miscellany - Model Cities, Panoramic Maps, Polymath Maps, Fantasy Buildings, Faraway Lands, Maze City, Papa's Maze




Enormous Scale Models of Cities are Mind-Blowing and Gorgeous
Vincze Miklos
Gizmodo

"Sometimes the only thing more awe-inspiring than a city is a massive model of the city, rendered down to the finest detail. And of course, they're to scale. Which is itself amazing."



Gorgeous Panoramic Maps Drawn Long Before Satellites Even Existed
Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghen
Gizmodo

"There was once a time when we had to imagine what our towns and cities looked like from the sky. There were famous artists who specialized in creating these panoramic views of Earth, though today, it's a lost art. They were called panoramic or aero views, each drawn by hand without help from a plane or satellite."

"The makers of these maps took the accuracy of their creations very seriously. The artist would walk through the streets of his subject, noting every detail available, from the location of trees to how many windows each building had. They would create a kind of proxy map using their notes, and only start drawing once they had a complete survey."
 
 

The Maps of an Ottoman Polymath
Public Domain Review

"The Bosnian-born polymath and all-round genius Matrakçı Nasuh is best known for his exquisite miniatures depicting various landscapes and urban centres of 16th-century Persia."

"The name Matrakci was not, in fact, his name by birth but rather a nickname referring to his invention of a kind of military lawn game called matrak, a word which means 'cudgel' or 'mace', the main weapon at the heart of the game. The name stuck, and later would come to label its very own genre in Ottoman miniature art, the 'Matrakci style', describing works echoing his penchant for detail and precision of execution."



Building Fantasy
Lucas Adams
New York Review of Books

Fantastical Cityscapes of Cardboard and Glue
Roberta Smith
New York Times

"Out of modest ingredients Kingelez creates a whole world, entirely his own. The sprawling, glittering future city is one example of an electrifying alternate civic space, a city made up of glittering skyscrapers that could easily have been crafted from stained glass. In addition to entire imaginary cities, Kingelez’s work offers an assemblage of eye-popping additions to any fantasy skyline. Each piece is riddled with decoration and ornamentation, bright pink foliage, circles and stars, and a color palette that always leans toward the bold and the vivid."

"Peering down at Kingelez’s array of visions like some benevolent Godzilla, it’s an easy leap to imagine the lives of those living and working in a cityspace that instantly feels so exuberant, and so generous. None of Kingelez’s designs feature private residences. What would it be like to live and work in a place that knows abundance and love the way Kingelez depicts it?"



Incredible Dream-Like Models of Faraway Lands
Alice Yoo
My Modern Met

Amazing Bonsai Tree Castles are Miniature Living Worlds
Lori Zimmer
Inhabitat

"All my creation comes from my early experiences of bonsai making and maze illustration. I always got inspired from the question 'if I could be a Lilliput…' Maybe such small objects could be transformed to become a huge scale of buildings, castles, and the world itself."

"I built my career as a maze illustrator in my twenties. I got fully immersed in pushing a strong conceptual maze. From my thirties, I shifted my career from being a maze illustrator to being a concept maker for the catering trade that creates a fusion between food and entertainment. I applied my method of giving surprise and joy to people for which I cultivated in my career as a maze illustrator."




I’ve Been Developing This Maze City For 5 Years While Travelling Around The World
Marval
Bored Panda

"Rabath Jany is an ancient city in Babaria, built across the fiords of both Silvenaos and Yellow seas. It is better known as Maze city due to its complex architectural structure. I developed this painting traveling around the world during five years. The mix of different people, cultures and natural landscapes I met during my trip has deep influenced the development of the maze city. Rabath Jany is the result of such mix of cultures I met during my trips."

"Maze city is a mixture of modern and ancient technologies. Maze city’s inhabitants always used sailing ships. Otherwise, they also have a very sophisticated sky metro infrastructure with hundreds of sky lines running through all the districts."



Dad Spends 7 Years on Incredibly Detailed Maze
Johnny
Spoon & Tamago

"Some people have hobbies. Other people are obsessive. But when the two cross paths, this is what you get. A Japanese twitter user recently unearthed an incredibly detailed maze that her father created almost 30 years ago. When pressed for details, the father explained that he spent 7 years creating the map."

Friday, June 26, 2020

Actual Play - Shadows of Brimstone - Contacting a Fallen Fortress


Kitsune - 1st level - played by Emily
Courtesan - 1st level - played by me


Session 1
Somewhere in the hinterlands of feudal Edo-period Japan, a meteorite made of mysterious dark stone has landed in the nearby mountains. The stone can be forged into weapons and used to perform magic, but it seems to have opened a door to monsters once believed mythical, and prolonged exposure slowly warps its users. Society in this localized region has all but collapsed into chaos. Landowning families have largely retreated into their hereditary fortresses, and the countryside is filled with soldiers and criminals, all traveling in search of opportunity, gold, and dark stone.

Two companions set off on an adventure of their own - the Kitsune, a fox spirit and former guardian of a Water Temple, and the Courtesan, a skilled entertainer bearing a personal letter from the Emperor, thanking her for the afternoon she participated in a tea ceremony at the Imperial Palace, that she hoped would help keep the pair safe on the road. They first set off to investigate a fortress that had gone dark, its fields abandoned, its lanterns left unlit.

The pair entered the fortress, with the Kitsune carrying their lantern to try to hold back the darkness. Courtesan peeked into the next room. Kitsune began searching for evidence of whatever crime had befallen the place. She found a small purse of coins ... and bloodstains and a fleeting shadow that unsettled her. She drew out her ornate comb to smooth her fur and sooth her nerves.

They passed into a dojo, the floor covered with scattered salt. The cubbyholes along the walls were filled with smashed salt blocks, buckets of the stuff were overturned. All of it was mixed with dirt and sand, useless to try to collect. As the pair stooped down though, the moonlight coming in through a hole in the roof was broken up by the shadows of a flock of tengu flying overhead. Fortunately, the flock flew on without landing.

In the next room the far wall was half-filled by a massive statue of some religious icon, a large man that neither of them recognized. The Courtesan had never been a religious woman, and the Kitsune was only familiar with her fellow spirits. As they crossed the room, the shadows seemed to twist with malevolence. While they watched those, they were somehow ambushed by an enormous slug that towered over both of them. The slug reared over them, its thick coat of slime and mucus dripping onto them, but the Courtesan's hidden dagger and Kitsune's kama knives quickly ended its life. Kitsune lamented that no salt had been recovered to use against the pest. Searching the room afterward, Courtesan found dark stone, and Kitsune found a magical Ring of the Yamabushi, which she placed on her finger.


They continued down a hallway where the ceiling collapsed onto them. Kitsune dodged out of the way, but Courtesan was showered with debris, and needed to pause to bandage her wounds. They passed through another hall and into a courtyard where a curse was painted on the floor. An undead goryo, dressed and painted like a kabuki actor snuck out of the shadows and ambushed them. This fight was harder, but the Kitsune's blades struck true, shredding the creature's costume and sending it back to the underworld. In this room Kitsune found dark stone and the Courtesan located a bag of gold dust.


After the fight, the Courtesan was briefly possessed by an angry spirit, cursing the brutal end of its too-short life. Kitsune brought out her ornate comb, and ran it through her friend's hair while speaking words of comfort and encouragement. "There there," she said, patting Courtesan twice on the shoulder, "there there." They both felt a growing sense of dread as the ominous circumstances began to weigh on them.

They next entered a garden courtyard. It was decorated for a party. At last! A clue to show the pair that they getting closer to learning the fate of the palace's inhabitants! Kitsune's quick eyes spotted a secret passage in the wall, but the pair declined to enter it. She also found a pot of soup, somehow still simmering over hot coals. They each ate a small bowl and felt refreshed. Whatever had happened to the residents, it wasn't poison.

The fortress echoed with hideous laughter as they passed into the next room, another training dojo. In the far corner, they spotted a statue of a temple dog come to life and fought against it on mats meant only for practice and trial combat. The stone statue shrugged off most blows, but Kitsune used water magic to deflect one of its own attacks back on itself, turning the tide of battle. Hidden in the dojo, Kitsune found a Yambushi's charm, and Courtesan located a few ingots of gold.


At last they entered the palace's audience chamber. They realized that the fortress's residents must somehow have tried to contact the denizens of an Other World. Every creature the pair had encountered so far came from the Forest of the Dead, a decaying and mist-filled afterlife. A demonic brand burst into flames on the floor, and three crowds of swirling ghosts poured through the gaps in the hastily boarded-up back door. So this was the fate of the fortress's inhabitants! Either slain by spirits or become them. Rather than risk fighting on the burning floor, Kitsune and Courtesan lured the spirits back into the dojo. They were outnumbered and outmatched, with the ghosts seeming to draw strength from the pair's own cunning and spirituality. Although they banished one angry horde of ghosts, the other two knocked the Courtesan unconscious and cast her aside. The Kitsune's water magic helped her hold out a while longer, but soon she too succumbed to the darkness.


When the pair awoke, the spirits were gone. The fortress was still ruined, but now empty. The Kitsune's leg was injured, and the Courtesan's collarbone ached. Both felt corrupted by the unsettling evil that permeated the place. They resolved to travel to a feudal village to seek medical help, and perhaps hire some assistants, before setting out on their next adventure.


Gains
Experience - Kitsune 645 XP, Cortesan 425 XP
Gold - Kitsune 25 gp, Courtesan 400 gp
Dark Stone - Kitsune 3 dark stone, Courtesan 1 dark stone
Treasure - Kitsune found Ring of the Yamabushi artifact and Yamabushi Charm gear.


Losses
Kitsune and Courtesan were both knocked out and injured.
Because the final spirits were not defeated and no survivors were rescued, the mission was a failure.


Commentary
I've played a different version of Shadows of Brimstone before with another friend, but this was my first time as the more experienced player guiding a novice through the game. Technically, Shadows has no game master or referee, but I took responsibility for knowing the rules a little better. Since I often run D&D for relatively novice players, this wasn't such an unfamiliar situation for me to be in. I did make a couple mistakes which I'll correct next time, but overall, I thought it went well - even though we got TPKed at the end.

The gameplay in Shadows is mostly cooperative, but the acquisition of stuff is competitive. Searching a room outside of combat is a solo activity, and the searcher gets to keep whatever they find. After a battle, all players get loot, but again, it's random and individualized. Experience awards come from simply hitting monsters size Large or larger, but only from delivering the killing blow for smaller enemies. Other ways to gain XP include searching rooms, healing others characters' injuries, and casting magic spells. Among the things that account for our uneven XP awards, Emily's character staying alive for another couple rounds of combat netted her quite a bit of experience, even though she was unable to survive the ghosts.

This is a game that requires a lot of pre-play preparation in terms of punching out cardboard tokens; cutting out, assembling, and gluing plastic minifigures; and sleeving and sorting all the cards that come with. The benefit of all that is that it's very good looking, and card draws replace a lot of what would random table rolls in D&D, which both lets the game run without a GM, and probably facilitates the individualized treasure and experience point awards.

What you give up is some of the opportunity for playing the role of your character, and some of the tactical freedom to address the various tableaus you encounter. Simply ignoring whatever it is generally is not an option.

The fact that all the monsters came from the Forest of the Dead was a total coincidence, but it helped create a slightly coherent narrative out of the evening's events, and it suggests that for this campaign, we might focus on the Forest as our primary Other World-ly adversary. The ghosts were a particular bit of bad luck. Some of their combat stats are based on your characters' skills, and ours had high values in just the right places to tip this fight from difficult to impossible. If we are going to fight these things again, we'll need better weapons, and maybe an expendable hireling to help out.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

d666 "Powers Checks" for Raveloft

Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque recently posted a critique of "powers checks" in Ravenloft. Jack describes the premise of a powers check, then listed his two key complaints.

"The idea behind the powers check mechanic is committing evil acts triggers rolls to see if your character is warped by the powers of darkness until they ultimately become a villainous NPC. Along the way, a character gains strange powers and finds their body and mind twisted and corrupted."

"The mechanic mostly serves the purpose of enforcing 2e AD&D's sense of morality. The Realm of Terror box set is explicitly clear that powers checks are intended to make players play the game the right way. You can almost hear the beleaguered sigh of the camp counselor as they tell you kids to knock it off or nobody will be allowed to go swimming after lunch."

"If a player wants to lean into the idea that their character has become tempted by evil or corrupted by darkness, the mechanic punishes them for playing in that mode by eventually taking their character away. The road down into the abyss also has a tendency to cripple your character in one way or another."


After reading that, it occurred to me that I'd accidentally introduced a powers check into a game I'm refereeing. In a recent session of my Wizard City campaign, my players found a badass Hell Gun that's supposed to immediately send the gun's target to Hell (and condemn the gun's user to go there after they die too). I loved this idea, but it seemed kind of disproportionately strong compared to the other capabilities of a GLOG character, so I added one more stipulation, a 1-in-136 chance that the gun's user is dragged down to Hell immediately.

The boring way to describe this is to say that the player had to roll 3d6, and their character would be killed on an 18 ... but the cool way to describe it to say that they had to roll a d666 and would be doomed on 666. I assume the original Ravenloft powers check was also something boring like a d100 roll.

So let's convert my impromptu mechanic into a full on powers check by adding two other possible results. Let's also give it a better name, like the Hell Roll, or something. Any time a character invokes a dark power, the player must roll three 6-sided dice:
- on a 6, the character gains a new dark power
- on a 66, the character is corrupted by the dark power
- on a 666, the character either dies instantly or becomes a servant of the dark power

That seems cool, but the nature of Jack's critique wasn't really that d100 rolls are a thematically boring way to represent the exciting danger of using Hell powers. His first point is that he thinks the check is used to force the players to make their characters act like heroes by punishing them if they try to do anything villainous. His second is that instead of cultivating morally-ambiguous heroes who are tempted by the seductive power of the Dark Side, the "powers check" mechanic discourages you from flirting with supernatural evil by making it feel too risky.

To address Jack's first critique, we need to rethink when to make a powers check or Hell Roll, or whatever. In Ravenloft, it sounds like you have to make a powers check when you perform evil deeds like killing people and taking their stuff, which in previous versions of D&D was treated as ... playing D&D. (Sometimes it almost feels like we shouldn't look for moral guidance from a game where you portray murderers, burglars, robbers, and thieves?)


But I would argue that this kind of mechanic is much better if we don't attach it to notions of sin, and instead attach it to ideas about contamination or taint. Without going too deep into theology or philosophy, I think we can draw a distinction between a mechanic that makes it dangerous to perform evil actions and a mechanic that makes it dangerous to get in too close proximity to evil objects.
 
We can imagine sin as something that accumulates when people perform certain acts. Two notable features of sin are that it can be repented and forgiven, and that it only accrues based on what you do, not the tools you use to do it. This makes it a poor fit for this game mechanic for a few reasons.

A sin mechanic doesn't put much constraint on player actions if they can remove it at will by claiming that their characters feel genuinely sorry and are prepared to spend their next downtime action praying. (Especially if your received ideas about sin come from a version of Christianity in which it's enough for forgiveness to come from God, even if the victims of your actions won't - or, because they're dead, can't - forgive you.)

A sin mechanic also appears to punish players for the very same actions that other game mechanics reward them for. This in turn calls for an explanation of why the same actions are only sometimes sinful. I suppose you could put your players in a position where they're doing bad things to bad people for good reasons, and where shouldering the weight of the sin that comes along with doing that is just part of their heroic burden ... but that's not really how Ravenloft used the mechanic. Claiming that doing bad things for good reasons accrues no sin is troubling in its own way though. Trying to justify why killing this type of sentient creature is a sin that requires forgiveness, but killing that kind of sentient creature is a righteous action that pleases the divine starts you walking down a mental path that leads somewhere very ugly very quickly.

Suppose though, that we feel satisfied that this monster really is evil. It does bad things to innocent people, and will continue doing so unless we kill it. Slaying this particular monster is an unambiguously good act. Great! So then why would it be sinful to bite the monster with vampire fangs, or slash it with werewolf claws, or shoot it with a Hell Gun? Maybe others won't see a conflict here, but the version of Christianity that I was exposed to as a child seemed to be filled of stories about how a person with a pure heart can't be made unclean by evil. The evil deeds of others might harm your body, but they can't sully your soul, only their own. If impaling Dracula is good, why should I accrue sin points if I stab him with Jack the Ripper's scalpel rather than a knife that came from my kitchen drawer?

For gaming purposes, if player characters are going to roll dice to avoid being dragged down by supernatural evil, I think it's better to imagine it as a kind of spiritual pollution, or radiation, or poison. For gaming, I think it's better to imagine contamination rather than sin. This kind of evil is like a toxic substance, and it gets on you just by coming near it, moreso if you handle it or use it.

You get contaminated or corrupted by wielding evil weapons, using evil super powers, casting evil spells, reading evil books, invoking evil spirits. Basically, if you could imagine replacing the word "evil" with "radioactive" and have everything still make sense, it's probably okay to roll some dice to try to avoid it.

In fairness, I think this is already the most common way that the risk of being consumed by evil gets used in gaming, aside, apparently, from Ravenloft. Changing the conditions under which player characters accumulate corruption points makes them far more palatable to award during the game.

I would add one final condition as well - players only make powers checks as the result of voluntary decisions. You don't need to roll the dice because a vampire bit you or a werewolf scratched you. That gives you a power, but doesn't put your character's soul at risk. It's only when you use that power yourself that you risk contamination.

(The real-world implications of either of these perspectives on evil can be quite troubling, depending on the situation they're applied to. Imagining that some inner purity or righteousness absolves them of blame for the harm caused by groups that they're members of or benefit from, allows a lot of people to ignore that harm and even contribute to it - in a way that they might not if they perceived themselves as tainted despite their ignorance or good intentions. Similarly, if we apply the logic of contamination to almost any form of abuse, we arrive almost immediately at a very ugly form of victim-blaming. Frankly, this has been quite a lot more thinking about the nature of evil than I really intended to embark on at the start.)


Jack's second critique of the powers check is that it serves to restrict player choices in a couple of undesirable ways. For one thing, it's an attempt to enforce a particular play style using an in-game rule when some sort of outside-the-game mechanism would be better. If you'd prefer to pretend to be dissolute grifters and ne'er-do-wells rather than heroic monster-slaying world-savers, then, idk, maybe don't play the game that says it's about slaying monsters right there on the box? And if your players want to pretend to kill animals and torture villagers for fun, you don't need a game rule to stop them, you need new players, and quite possibly to question the life choices that led you to sit down at a table with that last batch.

The other potential problem is that the powers check might discourage a character behavior you want to encourage - namely pretending to be the brooding sort of hero who fights monsters so long that they begin to risk becoming a monster themselves.

This trope has two components. The first is a kind of evil that it's tempting to give in to. The second is some motivation to resist that temptation. The first component should be supplied by evil powers that are really cool, and substantially more powerful than the available non-damning options. Like, you're not going to use Blackbeard's accursed single-shot matchlock pistol if you've got a truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun as part of your starting equipment. You might risk your soul though, if there was a dracolich bearing down on you and those power levels were reversed.

Some of the motivation to resist temptation can be supplied by the players themselves. Again, genre buy-in is important here. Otherwise you might end up with a party of Bella Swans eagerly flinging themselves beneath the fangs of the nearest Edward Cullen, because they want nothing more than to be transformed into a beautiful superpowered monster with no discernible failings. Which could be fun, though characters with an unbridled enthusiasm for condemnation rather miss the mark if we were aiming for brooding or angst.

But even if your players are self-motivated to avoid transforming into full-on monsters, if you want them to use these powers some but not too much, then you probably need to define what "too much" means. But you probably also want the players to feel a little uncertain about where the line is drawn. You don't want them striding confidently up to it without fear of overstepping, you want them to worry that every step might be the one that carries them too far. Which means you need a dice-rolling mechanic. (Well, maybe not NEED exactly, but there's certainly a place for one.)

Offering the players cool superpowers that carry a chance of self-destruction creates a kind of resource management mini-game of risk and reward. The possibility that using your power grants you other risky powers serves to amplify the temptation. The possibility of partial disfigurement serves as a warning sign along the road to damnation. You want to use these powers, but every time you do might be your last. If your regular weapons aren't enough, the only way to kill the monster might cost you your soul. So roll that d666!