Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Fresh Water and the Lake as Dungeon

Yesterday I dredged the pond for blanket weed. In amongst each netful of juicy brown squelchy organic mess from the bottom - rotting vegetation, gooey mud, fibrous plantlife - I discovered a little treasure: dragonfly nymphs, dozens of them, each a few inches long, with angry murderous expressions on their faces at having been disturbed. It was amazing to thing that they had probably been down there for two years or so already, living out their lives with us on the surface completely ignorant of their very existence.

It got me thinking about fresh water - lakes, ponds, rivers - and how under-utilized it is as an environment for adventure in D&D. Undersea adventures, we know about, at least in theory if not in practice: we've all got our monstrous manuals brimming with sahuagin, locathah, aquatic elves and ixitxachitl. But under-lake ones?

Structurally, the under-lake adventure is similar to that of a dungeoncrawl. There is a deep, dark, Loch Ness-style body of water: murky and muddy and green. Beside it is a village. The villagers know that there are strange beings down there on the lake bottom. In fact, maybe they believe that down there on the lake bottom there is a gateway to hell. They fish on its surface, and sometimes they see things moving through the gloom. They say that there was once a city there, or a temple, or a castle, or all three, until the inhabitants wronged the gods and the valley was flooded. And so on and so on. And rather than simply strolling into the dungeon, the PCs can borrow a boat and dive into it - or just swim. All they need are a way to breathe underwater and something to weigh them down.

And what do they find down there? In a body of water the size of Loch Ness there could be entire ruined settlements, entire living settlements of whatever creatures are down there, cave systems burrowed into the lake bottom or sides, forests of weeds, chasms and ravines, miniature deserts of rock (not to mention a hundred different Nessies). Plenty of stuff to bring back to the surface for the enterprising D&D PC.

The logistical niceties are in a way what I like the most. How do you get heavy stuff up from the bottom of a lake? How do you make sure that when you leave the lake and come back, you going to end up at exactly the same location given how hard it is to judge where things are from the surface? How do you find your way around in the murky depths were visibility is only a couple of yards? How do you locate the body of a fallen comrade?

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Poetry RPG Challenge

A friend introduced me to the 200 Word RPG Challenge. I quite like the idea as an example of constrained creativity, but it got me wondering whether 200 words was too much - and too banal a concept. Would it be possible to create the rules for an RPG in the form of a single haiku? The rule is that it has to be entirely complete and playable - no extra explanation allowed.

Here was my first attempt:

Roll a d-20
To do whatever you want
Higher is better

But there maybe isn't quite enough there (on its own, the haiku sort of implies you can do whatever you want automatically and the higher the dice roll the better the result, but there's no accounting for failure).

Another one:

Player and DM
Each roll a d-100
Compare the results

I quite like that one. Although, as above, it also requires a little bit of creative interpretation to tell that the idea is the player and DM both roll 1d100 and the player succeeds or fails accordingly, with the difference between the two scores affecting the extent of the success or failure.

A last effort along similar lines:

Success or failure?
Competing d6 results
Determine outcomes

This makes me wonder about other poetry-related RPG challenges. Can you come up with a complete ruleset in the form of a sonnet? How about a limerick?

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Recommendations: Bartok, Wolfe, Dixon, Huss

A few cultural artifacts I've been enjoying lately. The first is Bartok's music for the 1924 ballet "The Magnificent Mandarin". Here's the synopsis from wikipedia:

After an orchestral introduction depicting the chaos of the big city, the action begins in a room belonging to three tramps. They search their pockets and drawers for money, but find none. They then force a girl to stand by the window and attract passing men into the room. The girl begins a lockspiel — a "decoy game", or saucy dance. She first attracts a shabby old rake, who makes comical romantic gestures. The girl asks, "Got any money?" He replies, "Who needs money? All that matters is love." He begins to pursue the girl, growing more and more insistent until the tramps seize him and throw him out.  
The girl goes back to the window and performs a second lockspiel. This time she attracts a shy young man, who also has no money. He begins to dance with the girl. The dance grows more passionate, then the tramps jump him and throw him out too.  
The girl goes to the window again and begins her dance. The tramps and girl see a bizarre figure in the street, soon heard coming up the stairs. The tramps hide, and the figure, a Mandarin (wealthy Chinese man), stands immobile in the doorway. The tramps urge the girl to lure him closer. She begins another saucy dance, the Mandarin's passions slowly rising. Suddenly, he leaps up and embraces the girl. They struggle and she escapes; he begins to chase her. The tramps leap on him, strip him of his valuables, and attempt to suffocate him under pillows and blankets. However, he continues to stare at the girl. They stab him three times with a rusty sword; he almost falls, but throws himself again at the girl. The tramps grab him again and hang him from a lamp hook. The lamp falls, plunging the room into darkness, and the Mandarin's body begins to glow with an eerie blue-green light. The tramps and girl are terrified. Suddenly, the girl knows what they must do. She tells the tramps to release the Mandarin; they do. He leaps at the girl again, and this time she does not resist and they embrace. With the Mandarin's longing fulfilled, his wounds begin to bleed and he dies.

LIKE. Here's a rendition with the score:

The second is Gene Wolfe's Soldier of Arete. I can't remember who it was who recommended these books to me in the comments to a post on this blog, but whoever it was - thank you. Soldier of the Mist was one of the best fantasy books I had read in years. Soldier of Arete is even better. I would scarcely have thought that could be possible. I could also have scarcely have thought it possible that I could respect Wolfe's work more than I did already, but this, to me, is next-level stuff: in fact, I'm just going to go straight ahead and right now give him the coveted Noisms Award for Best Current Living Writer. It's him. Don't disagree. You're wrong.

The third is Judson Huss. Somebody shared some of his work on G+. It is so far up my alley it is practically right at the end of it, with the biggest, fattest rats, oldest piles of rotting waste, and most well-stowed mob hits. I mean, look at this stuff. It's like Dali, Bruegel, Bosch and Escher put in a blender and given the slightest hint of essence of Larry Elmore:

The fourth and final is Dougal Dixon's After Man: A Zoology of the Future. I must declare an interest: Breakdown Press, who are publishing it, are people I am working with and I've gamed with one of the people who run it. That may colour my appreciation for the book, but I doubt it. I was a fan of Dougal Dixon's work anyway - his Complete Book of Dinousaurs and Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Creatures are a huge inspiration for Behind Gently Smiling Jaws - but again, this is sort of next-level stuff: what do you get when an expert on evolution and paleontology gets to speculate about the future of evolution? Well, stuff like this:

Goes up there with Mythago Wood, Jin Ping Mei and Herodotus's Histories in the list of "Books I want to make into campaign settings".

Friday, 11 May 2018

Small is Beautiful

The virtue of smallness of scale has been a theme on this blog since days of yore (see herehereherehere and here). But the capacity of the real world to pack huge variety into tiny spaces still fascinates me.

Consider the Wrekinsets. A Dark Age Anglo-Saxon sub-kingdom within the kingdom of Mercia which was itself subdivided into sub-sub-kingdoms. You could quite easily walk up and down its length from north-south or east-west (assuming it roughly corresponds to modern Cheshire with some extras in Shropshire and Flintshire) in a couple of days if you meant it. And yet it was an entire kingdom of its own with further major political divisions within it.

Consider the Principality of Theodoro. A tiny Greek Orthodox statelet on the backside of the Crimean peninsula. The rump of the Empire of Trebizond, which was the rump of the Byzantine Empire, which was the rump of the Roman Empire. Look how teeny-tiny it was (it's the green bit):

My rough guess from squinting at scale maps of the Crimea is that the Principality of Theodoro was about 30 miles across, from east-west. Comfortably walkable in two days, if that. But with its own distinct political, social, legal systems; its own foreign policy; its own culture. (I love how wikipedia lists is population as comprising "Greeks, Crimean Goths, Alans, Bulgars, Cumans, Kipchaks, and other ethnic groups...." We like to imagine ourselves as living in diverse societies.)

Consider Wearside Jack. In the late 70s the West Yorkshire police were desperately searching for a serial killer (the "Yorkshire Ripper") when they received a series of letters and an audio message from somebody claiming to be the killer who later turned out to be a hoaxer. This man was clearly from Wearside (meaning the city of Sunderland and its environs) but dialectologists were able to place him far more precisely than that - as being from Castletown, an area within Sunderland which is little more than a few streets. In other words, the way he spoke was enough to place him in a geographical area of about a square mile or so.

Consider that Hilbre Island is only 11 acres in size but it has its own special sub-species of vole.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Emishi Knight

A fierce warrior from the personal war band of an Emishi lord. He is violent, powerful, and vengeful, covered in tattoos, with a thick beard, long hair, and black body hair on his chest, arms and back like a wild boar. Everywhere he goes, he rides on the back of a horse, which towers over the steeds of Yamato people, and he is ready to fight and die at the command of his lord or in the name of his own dignity.

HD 4-6 (1d3+3)
AC 4 (Hide armour [AC 7] and protective tattoos)
#ATT 2
DMG As weapon (spear or short sword) +2
*Has a steed with 3 HD and 2 attacks doing d3/d6 damage (bite and kick)
*His tattoos offer:
-Protection from Fire
-Jump if leaping
-Spider Climb if climbing
-Shocking Grasp if grabbing/grappling
-Water Breathing if submerged
*Like all Emishi, he can Speak With Animals at will and Charm Mammal once per day

Emishi knights always have three items of jewelry (randomly determined).

If met as a random encounter a solitary Emishi knight will be 1 - Carrying out a command under oath; 2 - Hunting; 3 - Defending his honour. Roll on the sub-tables below for more details:

Carrying out a command under oath:
1 - To rescue a woman kidnapped by another local Emishi tribe
2 - To track down and kill or capture an outlaw
3 - To kill a man-eating bear or wolf pack
4 - To recover a lost treasure stolen by an animal spirit
5 - To steal something from a wizard
6 - To investigate tales of mysterious travellers from the South

Hunting: the Emishi knight is 1 - Currently stalking prey; 2 - Carrying home a kill; 3 - Decides to stalk the PCs

Defending his honour:
1 - By challenging men he meets to wrestle
2 - By challenging men he meets to fight to the death
3 - By kidnapping a woman from another local Emishi tribe
4 - By climbing a mountain
5 - By exploring a cave
6 - By sailing across the sea to an uninhabited island

Thursday, 3 May 2018

The Semi-Unique Monster

Monsters in RPGs tend to fall into one of two camps: the species and the unique. The tarrasque is a unique. Orcs are a species.

Creatures in children's TV programmes and books often fall in the middle-ground: they are semi-unique. There are four teletubbies. Are there more? It seems unlikely: they are a race unto themselves. In In the Night Garden, we encounter the tombliboos (three creatures who always seem to be kissing each other whenever I watch it), the pontipines (a family of ten tiny people with no feet), and the tittifers (a small group of hyper-real birds). They are each apparently a species in their own right. In the Clangers the titular creatures - weird pink things with long snouts - are a single family of beings who inhabit a hollow planet far away.

The reason for this is, of course, because children's stories are often about families, don't need bestiaries, and don't need to make any sort of particular sense - that's not the point. But nonetheless, I find the implied settings in which these semi-unique creatures live fascinating. Worlds in which a single family or a small group of similar beings can exist on its own, living on its own terms, without being part of a bigger whole.

In fantasy for grown-ups, the semi-unique monster takes on a slightly disturbing tenor that isn't present in children's stories. Isn't there something terrifying and horrible about the idea of being part of a group of half-a-dozen creatures who are all there is of your species? I don't mean because of the threat of extinction; I mean because however hard you search in life for a sympatico, a soul mate, somebody who truly understands you, well, this is it, the entire pool you have to draw from.

There's also something compelling, though I can't quite put my finger about what it is, in the idea of people in a D&D world being able to refer to an entire creature type, found nowhere else in the world except in their little local 6-mile hex, as a collective noun. "Watch out if you are travelling through the Old Forest tonight. That's when the pontipines come out." Is it just because it harks back to the kind of thing I might have read in the tales of my childhood? Very probably, but I like it, all the same. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

The Death of the Archetype and the Character as Brand

Film is often said to be a "literalising medium" and the modern Hollywood machine in particular has no respect for expressionism, symbolism, or the surreal. Nowhere is this more evident than in the all-powerful juggernaut that is the Origin Story: it's not enough for a popular character - be it Wolverine, Superman, Batman, Han Solo, Darth Vader, Captain Kirk, Spock, Malificent, etc. - to simply stand fully-formed, larger-than-life, as you find him; no, there has to be a cultural product detailing where he came from. Not even dream-characters in Alice in Wonderland are safe: even the Mad Hatter gets an Origin Story of sorts nowadays, because he isn't allowed to simply exist - the logic of film demands he be from somewhere and that we understand why he is mad. 

It isn't hard to understand why this is: a character like Han Solo is no longer just the roguish smuggler who everybody prefers to Luke. He's a brand in his own right, or is readily commodified as such, and why should an opportunity to spin him into a money-maker be spurned? The easiest way of doing that is by making a film providing the definitive explanation as to where he came from: nerds will queue in droves to see it and non-nerds know enough about Han Solo to want to find out. Never mind that the power of a character like Han Solo comes from the fact that he is not so much a character as an archetype, and that's the point (if you listen to and believe George Lucas, it was even his point when he wrote the original films). No, he must be rendered prosaic so he can be better monetized. 

What do we lose from this? Not a great deal, I suppose, but we lose something: the notion that fiction actually has primordial, intuitive significance that gets at the structures underlying our common humanity and which can't be reduced to just words on a page or images on a film. Han Solo as a human being, who was a child once and who is the way he is because he never learned to love/became embittered by a personal tragedy/whatever the Origin Story is, will be a less dramatically compelling one than Han Solo who simply is. The attempt to make him seem a more realistic and plausible character will deprive him of his potential to mean something else. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Naacal Dancers in the Dreams of Ice

Groups of Naacals came to the Dreams of Ice long ago in order to dance. There, with no music to disturb the purity of their movements except the breath of the wind and the crunching and creaking of the ice and snow; with nothing to influence their thoughts or feelings except vistas of endless white; and with the extremity of the cold forcing them to put themselves through ever-greater exertions in the name of their art, they believed that they could ascend to pinnacles of physical expression higher than they could possibly climb in the Unremembered City.

Whether any of them have achieved this is a matter of opinion. Over the eons each group has, in its isolation, been through schism, revolution, counter-revolution, renaissance, evolution, regression, and return-to-roots, each on many occasions, and has developed innumerable eccentricities and formalities as a result. Over time the obsessions of these groups of Naacal dancers have come to define them, and they now typically no longer dance for enjoyment or even to hone their skills, but rather because they remember how to do almost nothing else.

Group Composition
Current Dancing Style
Solitary – a single Acrobat (1d6+3 levels) and d3 random servitors
Jerking, frenzied and arrhythmic
Currently in schism (divided into two camps)
Utter stillness punctuated by sudden flamboyant motions
Gradually starving due to servitors malfunctioning
Small – 1d6 Acrobats, 1d3 Decadents, 1d3 Sorcerers (all 1d3+1 levels, with a 1d6+2 level leader), and 2d6 random servitors
Ballet-like leaps and throws
Fierce conflict with another nearby dance group over a theoretical dispute
Uniform and rhythmical, with each dancer performing in carefully choreographed synchronicity
Disturbed by nearby singing dogs who destroy their perfect silence each dawn and dusk
Medium – 2d6 Acrobats, 1d6 Decadents, 1d6 Sorcerers (all 1d3+1 levels, with a 1d6+4 level leader), and 2d6 random servitors
Slow, graceful, elegant
Targeted by a band of cannibalistic hunting Figments
Primitivist, incorporating animal cries, copulation, and excretion
Feel that they have lost their ability, and that their movements have become trite and ugly
Large – 3d6 Acrobats, 1d6+3 Decadents, 1d6+3 Sorcerers (all 1d3+1 levels, with a 1d6+4 level leader), and 4d6 random servitors
Ground-based rolling, writhing and wriggling
Targeted by nearby monstrous Figments
Individualistic: each member performs one of the above
Are studying a nearby Figment village to learn new “naturalistic” dance techniques

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

After a War

There is a sub-genre of fiction (detective fiction usually) which is set in the aftermath of a war. A nonexhaustive list of this includes films such as The Third Man, Three Kings, The Good German, and books such as Tokyo Year Zero (which is execrable - I feel duty bound to warn you not to read it if you're considering it), the De Luca trilogy, the Bernie Gunther series, and I suppose A Song of Ice and Fire and those Steven Erikson books if you want to stretch things a little.

As a setting for fiction that kind of background works, because everything is up for grabs. The normal rules don't apply. Somebody has taken society in both hands and shaken it to pieces like an Etch-a-Sketch drawing and now the constituent pixels are trying to find their way together again. The out-and-out chaos and totality of conflict itself has passed, but events take place against an unsettled backdrop which is intrinsically interesting as a result. It's plausible that people are going missing, settling scores, stealing things, breaking up or getting back together, and all the other stuff of good fiction, in large quantities.

A post-war environment also makes great campaign setting material for similar reasons. Red dragons have just swept through the land burning random settlements on their way somewhere else. Gibberlings have just invaded and fucked everyone over before throwing themselves into the sea en masse. A devastating plague of russet mold which almost emptied the land has just receded. The storm giant overlords have recently been overthrown and the men of Fantasyworldland have thrown off their shackles. And so on and so forth. In that kind of setting, the sandbox almost creates itself: everywhere they look, there's a plot hook for the PCs to get involved in or just a ruin to loot or explore.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Some Servitors in the Unremembered City

The levels of artistry which the Naacals once reached in their engineering of automata might seem almost godlike to the crude intellect of 17th century man. They became so skilled that the prosaic goal of efficiency came to seem to them almost quaint: at the zenith of their prowess, they came to prize only aesthetic innovation and sheer eccentricity, and it is the servitors from that era - beautiful, twisted, and strange - which today roam the plazas and avenues of the Unremembered City.

Tiger Lily: Something resembling a huge, bulbous orange-black flower, standing man-high on its spindly stalk, with fronds emanating downwards from its "head" like tentacles. From them it emits clouds of tiny razor-sharp disc-like spores, each no bigger than a grain of sand, which swarm through the air and carve or cut solid objects - including, where necessary, human flesh. HD 2, AC 6, #ATT Special, DMG Special, Move 90.
*Emits spores. It has 1d4+5 fronds, each of which can emit one cloud of spores (the process taking one round). Each spore cloud moves at 90 and can: 1 - Slice flesh (each spore simply cutting the skin at random, doing 1d3 hp damage automatically without the need for a 'to hit' roll), 2 - Clog lungs (the spore cloud entering through the nose and mouth to lacerate the respiratory tract from within - the victim can avoid this by covering the nose and mouth if forewarned, but otherwise suffers 1d6 hp damage automatically), 3 - Blind (the victim can avoid this by covering the eyes of forewarned, but is otherwise blinded - temporarily for 1d6 days, or permanently if the spore cloud can successively attack for 3 rounds in a row). Spore clouds do not regenerate and must return to the host within 6 rounds or the spore lose power and fall to the ground inert.

Porcelain Mule: A white-green ceramic quadrupedal form with a long, narrow, expressionless face like a horse's skull. If given a burden and a destination to carry it to, it will perform the task with remorseless and relentless energy; otherwise it stands inert awaiting instructions which nowadays rarely come. If a non-Naacal approaches it emits a foul, piercing bray in the manner of an outraged ungulate. HD 3+3, AC 4, #ATT 1 (trample), DMG 1d4, Move 180.
*If a non-Naacal human approaches within 20 yards, the Porcelain Mule will bray; it is never surprised and does this automatically. Anyone within 20 yards is deafened for 1d6 days (1d3 hours on a successful save versus poison), and any living thing within the vicinity will be put on the alert. Roll 1d4 times on the random encounter table to see how many things, or groups of things, come to investigate (arriving 1d10 minutes apart).

Cat With Cobra: Two automata perfectly crafted to resemble their respective inspirations. The first is the kind of cat the Naacals favour - short-snouted and long-limbed like a caracal. The reproduction is perfect, down to each individual silicon hair and whisker. It is accompanied everywhere by an Egyptian cobra, whose every individual scale was hand-crafted. Once created to assassinate political rivals, these servitors have become outmoded by the death of politics in the Unremembered City; now they simply do the only things they understand, which are to hunt and kill indiscriminately. The cat and cobra have the same stats: HD 1+1, AC 3, #ATT 1, DMG Special, Move 150.
*Always surprise opponents unless the opponent is forewarned or magically able to detect threats.
*The snake strikes to paralyse (no save is permitted; the effects last 1d6 days); the cat then automatically dispatches the victim with a bite to the neck if it is able to get within striking range. Having killed once, they flee and will not kill for the remainder of the day.

Dweller in the Reeds: A diminutive humanoid shape, thigh-high on a man, made of a thick emerald-green gel into which have been pressed small slats of jade, like lamellar. It lurks in gardens, parks and other green spaces, cultivating the plants which the Naacals favour and ruthlessly exterminating those they do not. Its fingers are made of narrow points of jade so sharp that they can sever tree branches like butter and so gracile they can carve decorative hieroglyphics and pictograms into the smallest and most delicate of flower petals. They defend their gardens tenaciously if they are disturbed or threatened; otherwise they are harmless. HD 1+1, AC 4, #ATT 1, DMG Special, Move 90.
*Always surprise opponents due to camouflage unless the opponent is forewarned or magically able to detect threats.
*Does 1d3 damage per attack but the attacks are of sharpness and directed against the legs.
*If able to attack the face of an opponent, its attacks permanently blind if hitting successfully.
*If struck to cause damage by a pierced weapon, the weapon sticks in the gel of its body 50% of the time - it can only be tugged free if the Dweller is inert or killed.

Padfoot: Something resembling both a tree-frog and an ibis. Four-legged, man-sized, with soft amphibian skin and splaying feet perfect for climbing and treading across ponds full of lily-pads, but with a black feathered head and downward-curving scimitar of a beak. In times past it was used as a spy: able to move in perfect silence, climb vertical walls, walk or swim across waterways, and probe with its beak. It was deliberately imbued with a curiosity which still enlivens it. It follows intruders at a safe distance, watching, until distracted or somehow given the slip. Anything it sees it will report if asked by a Naacal. HD 2, AC 4, #ATT 1, DMG 1d4, Move 150.
*Always surprises opponents due to silence and stealth.
*Climbs vertical and smooth walls (and can even move upside down across ceilings).
*Swims perfectly.
*Exudes greasy toxins from its skin; if touched with a bare hand (when dead or alive) it causes a sickening illness which has an onset of 1d3 hours and causes complete paralysis for a week (on a failed save versus poison) or the equivalent of a slow spell for a week (on a successful save). The grease is visible on close inspection. If the toxin is ingested it causes death within 1d6 minutes; no save is permitted.

Pthalo Hound
: A pile of deep, intense blue powder, bound together and animated so that resembles a stalking canine. It is completely featureless except for its brilliant hue. An artistic endeavour which once amused some forgotten Naacal engineer, it never had any purpose except the aesthetic. If touched, it collapses back into its constituent powder, which sticks and stains indelibly. HD *, AC *, #ATT *, DMG *, Move 180.
*When touched, it immediately disintegrates. Roll a d8 or d4 to determine wind direction. Enough of the powder will blow in that direction for 1d6 turns, to a distance of 30 yards, to cause permanent blue stains on any living thing or object in its path. These stains can never be removed, even by a wish spell. The remaining powder lies in a pile and can be gathered if desired.