Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Tree Megadungeon and the Mythic Upperworld


About this time last year I had the idea of creating a megadungeon inside a gigantic tree. For some reason today that idea came back to me, spiraling up out of the mists in my brain. I started thinking about the burrows in the roots at its base, and how you could invert the traditional way of doing things and start your PCs off down there, in civilization, ready to explore their way upwards. You could call this, "The Mythic Upperworld". To the people living down in the soil underneath, the tree up there is an alien place of verdant life, light, sap, wind, water, and strange green and brown fecundity. To them in their shadowy, dank, dark world a place of danger, adventure, and legends they are too cowardly or conservative to verify. (This is where the PCs come in.)

What sort of city would exist in the roots of this place? Where would the PCs begin their campaign? I picture a society made up of quiet, furtive things at home in damp loamy soil. Myconids and mold men, of course, but also a variant of the drow - loam elves, you could call them - pale, maybe even blind, hateful of the sun. Creeping spidery things, like neogi and ettercaps. Hook horrors and umber hulks kept as slaves or pets to dig tunnels and fend off enemies. All thing which hate the light green living world above, but who thirst for knowledge of it and its treasures.

To a neogi or loam elf living down in the Great Root City, what would the leaf canopy miles above represent? Heaven, or hell? An abode of the gods, or devils? Most likely the latter. Most likely the green cloud far above would represent fear, hate, danger, misery, death. The top of the Mythic Upperworld, like the bottom of the Mythic Underworld, is simply an infinite abyss. I like the thought of PCs reaching the top of the tree some day and discovering that all the stories they have heard in the Great Root City are mirrored precisely in reverse up there - because for the dwellers in the canopy, hell is all the way back down.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Implementation of the Fixed World


The last couple of weeks I have been thinking more about the implementation of my setting idea, the Fixed World.

What I envisage is a tighter version of Yoon-Suin. Each section of the map, of which there are 20 or so, contains a regional 24-mile hex map, an overview, the necessary d30 encounter tables by terrain type (which also functions as a bestiary), and then a sample 6-mile campaign hex map with random tables necessary to fill it. The aim is to be relatively succinct (a target of 6 pages per section).

Flavour-wise, the Fixed World (what I am provisionally calling Orbis Immobilis: the Fixed World) is a tribute to Mystara, the Known World - a kind of jumbling together of standard D&D tropes, but given new twists.

Above is a rough and ready sample of a 24-mile regional hex map for "Mane Hiemalis", the region of the world in which it is always spring and always winter. Here is the overview section:

Mane Hiemalis

Eventually the vast ice shelves of the frozen sea give way to open waters mixed with pack ice as the sun begins to dawn upon it. This frigid ocean of black water washes its ice floes up northwards onto rocky, desolate beaches under a red-gold sky. This is Mane Hiemalis, the land where it is always dawn and always winter.

Mane Hiemalis is rugged and ruffled - shelf after shelf of hills rising up from the coast, each higher than the last, until they are finally mountains and on the other side of them the plateau of Mane Vernus. Between those hills, sliced into them by rivers of glacial meltwater, are a myriad of deep, high-sided valleys where mist gathers and dark pine forests flourish in the dim light. On the hill tops above the tree line there is only rock, frost, lichen and tundra - and the unending cry of the wind.

Mane Hiemalis's terrain can be divided into four distinct belts: the sea and coast; the hills; the valleys; and the mountains.

The Sea and Coast

The seas of Mane Hiemalis may not be entirely frozen but they are frigid and cold. In the depths are Kuo-Toa, who thrive in the miserable darkness below. They are divided into many rivalrous warring theocracies, all with their own interpretation of their God's demands; holy war is a fact of life on the sea bed, and when it rages half-eaten and rotting corpses of the fish-men wash up on the beach like flotsam in their hundreds. At those times the bounty for scavengers is immense, and vast flocks of gulls sweep the coast like storm clouds to dissipate when the war is at an end.

On the cold bleak coast human communities eke out a living from the whales, walruses and seals with which they share their beach homes. They owe fealty to nobody and are so scattered, distant and distrustful of each other that they could generally never have the wherewithal to group themselves into something more organized than a loose affiliation of tribes. They dress themselves in skins and blubber and war occasionally with the horseshoe-crab people who inhabit the shallow littoral zones: petty inconsequential squabbles played out in repetitive brutality while the world beyond goes about its business.

The Hills

The bare hills of Mane Hiemalis begin to rise not far beyond its beaches and soon they are tall and looming - ridge after ridge extending northwards, their foothills shrouded in mist and shadow, their humped peaks pale with permanent frost. They support little animal or plant life, exposed as they are to the wind, fog and cold, but different nomadic groups range across them, occasionally raiding down into the valleys below for food and plunder.

There are three types of such nomads. The first are the troll-kings, petty potentates who traipse the high ground with motley collections of followers - subordinate trolls, human outlaws and slavers, captive ettins or other giants, vagrant duergar, and so forth. The baggage trains for these roving marauders can straggle out for miles behind their vanguard; typically the troll-king is somewhere in the middle, being carried on a howdah, chariot, or other grandiloquent vehicle. They as frequently fight each other as they do raid more settled lands below.

The second are the heath elves, ancient, proud and cruel, who inhabit the most isolated and distant hilltops of all. They live in high, narrow towers gently curved like fingers, which they call waypoints; different families move between them, spending a week or month here, a week or month there, before traveling on. In the ancient past the heath elves lived a settled existence in their towers, but now their numbers are greatly reduced and there are too few of them to populate all of the waypoints at a time. Hence their relentless wanderings.

The third are the bariaurs, half-goats, who herd their flocks across the desolate, craggy landscape, picking their way over cliff faces and scree on dainty hooves, traversing places which no other travelers can reach. Their goat herds can number in their thousands, spread across dozens of miles; each individual, tough and rangy, is able to survive on its own on the grass and mosses it can pick from the thin soil of the hilltops. The bariaurs themselves live off goat milk and meat - the only permanent cultural artefacts they create are huge geoglyphs etched into hillsides, visible when the dawn sun cuts through the mist, to mark their territory and summon the power of their gods.

The Valleys

Between the hills, where streams and rivers cut their way down into valleys, are the main centers of civilized life in Mane Hiemalis. Here, where the dawn light shines through, are thick pine forests where the trees stand like ghosts in the mist and rain. Amid it all are the strongholds of the were-raven lords - stone towers or motte-and-bailey castles, each ruled by independent nobles marked for rule by their lycanthrophic bloodlines. They hold sway over human serfs who carry out forestry and mining in their lands under oaths of fealty in return for what protection can be offered against the dangers abroad. The were-raven familes are ancient, powerful, and refined: they rule with what they insist is benevolence over the benighted villeins beneath them, though what "benevolence" means is open to broad interpretation.

In the deepest, darkest, most northerly forests where the light barely penetrates, and the mist lies permanently like a blanket, are other polities. An ettercap queendom in a great palace of silk threads, where giant spiders are bred for war. A treant king who rules over a race of forest dwarfs - brown-skinned, sharp-eyed variants of their mountain brethren who find the dark of the forest to their liking and construct great citadels there under the loamy earth. Three green dragons, all brothers, who live on an island in the centre of a forgotten lake; in its caverns great treasures are stored, guarded by golems the dragons have constructed from dead trees, stone, earth, and even the very mist and dawn light which surround them.

The Mountains

In the north of Mane Hiemalis is a high range of snow-peaked mountains which form the barrier between the cold damp south and the verdant wet plateau of Mane Vernus. They are bitter, glacial, and near impenetrable except for a mere handful of dangerous passes through which the merest trickles of trade and diplomacy can run.

These passes are guarded. One is the realm of a family of Formorian giants, deformed white-skinned behemoths who live in caverns of ice with throngs of troglodyte slaves. They tax any trade which goes by and grow ever bigger, ever fatter, and ever more wealthy. Another is watched over by an amethyst dragon, who sleeps under a glacier with one eye on the pass; travelers of interest are interrogated to sate her curiosity, while those who bore her are toyed with and eaten. Her glacier is burrowed-through with tunnels built eons ago by a race of ice elves long since disappeared. Their cathedrals and halls, filled with blue luminescence, lie otherwise empty and haunted save for those where the dragon stores her hoard. A third pass was built by a dwarven hero, Eskwetthum-bey, thousands of years prior: he rules it still as a lich, preserved in undeath by powerful magic and his own sheer will. It consists of a vast tunnel lancing through the heart of the highest peak, inside which Eskwetthum-bey's inbred descendants still live. Their inbreeding accentuates their aptitude for magic and they are sorcerers and warlocks all - though they are frequently also blind, enfeebled or deformed.

(The hex map was created using Cecil Howe's excellent Hex Kit.)

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Special Sale for Website Launch/Revamp

A while ago, I started a website for my nascent publishing wing, Noisms Games. I'm rather lazy about that sort of thing, but I finally made the effort to spruce it up a bit more (a bit more). I am going to do more to make the most of it in future, too.

To celebrate the re-launch and redoubled effort, for 48 hours only, I am launching a special sale. You can buy Yoon-Suin and Issue #1 of The Peridot in PDF for £1 each during that period at my website and there only. Feel free to spread the word! The offer ends at 5pm GMT on Wednesday 21st and will never be repeated. Click here to visit the website.


Sunday, 18 June 2017

In Media Res

I mentioned in my previous post that I was re-reading The Lord of the Rings. I was reminded earlier that the first time I read it, I think aged 10 or 11, I started with The Two Towers and not The Fellowship... - I think because a friend had already taken out my local library's only copy of the latter, and I was impatient to read it. So my encounter with the books started not with Bilbo leaving Hobbiton, but with Boromir's funeral. Quite a different introduction. 

Beginning a trilogy half way through is interesting. You have to make up for a lot of missing knowledge with guesswork and imaginings. Who was Boromir? Who are these hobbits Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn are looking for? What's all this stuff about a ring? And so on. It actually can add quite a bit of extra richness to the reading experience; your imagination has to work overdrive to fill in the gaps. (I wonder if there is room for a series of blog posts in which I start reading fantasy series from book two and speculate about the contents of book one...?)

A good way of beginning a fantasy novel, especially a series of fantasy novels, is of course to make it seem to the reader as though big important narrative forces are already underway - to transmit to the reader the sensation that they are coming into the middle of something; the setting is alive, and things have been going on before the plot proper starts, and will go on afterwards too. 

George RR Martin does a brilliant job of this in A Song of Ice and Fire. For all the series' flaws, it's indisputable that A Game of Thrones is a stunningly good first volume of a fantasy series, and a big part of that comes from the way Martin sets the scene: this is a world that doesn't just have a history; the characters also have histories - with each other. The book starts off with everybody having unfinished business, and takes it from there, and you're swept along with it as a result.

One can profitably adopt this approach with an RPG campaign too, of course. Having PCs start off with unfinished business is an additional impetus for them to not just do things but also engage with the setting. Gambling debts, a kidnapped child to search for, a family sold into slavery, an enemy to one day hopefully assassinate... these are all easy ways of achieving this, and pretty widely used, I would imagine.

I think it is likely to be much less common to take a wide-angle approach and begin a campaign in the middle of historical events, so to speak. Imagine starting off a campaign on the evening that a completely unrelated revolution is taking place (with a randomly determined outcome, natch). Or a few months after an earthquake, with ruined buildings still much in evidence. Or against a backdrop of a long-lasting civil war, with a battle happening just over the next hill as the PCs emerge from the dungeon with their loot. Or with the Black Death just beginning to sweep through the population. Etc. Right now all I can think of is the beginning to Deep Carbon Observatory - maybe there are other published examples out there.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Logistics of Sleep Deprivation

I have a not-quite-two-month-old baby so I think about sleep a lot these days. She actually isn't all that bad a sleeper as these things go but a good unbroken 7-8 hour stretch is now a distant memory for me.

I also happen to be re-reading LOTR at the moment. I realised the other day I'd not read it in a few years so I dug it out for the, what, 10th time? In the early chapters as Frodo and his friends cross the Shire sleep features quite heavily; camping outside, marching at night, finally getting a proper rest at Tom Bombadil's house, etc.

Anyway, it amused me to think of how blithely sleep is treated by most D&D players. Night comes and they glibly decide "Boris is on watch for the first 3 hours, Gwendolyn for the second, Job for the last" or whatever and that's that. The cumulative effect of broken sleep (especially when there is an encounter as there often is), the fact that you never sleep all that well in a tent, the fact that dawn comes *really* early for much of the year... We just ignore it and get on with killing orcs.

People have come up with interesting ways to make encumbrance, rations and so on easy to keep track of. Is the logistics of sleep deprivation the last frontier? (Don't look at me for ideas - I got 3 hours, then 2 hours, then 3 hours again between 9pm and 7am last night. I'm hardly in a position to make up D&D subsystems.)

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Seasons Last 1000 Years

It has been a wee while since I posted about "The City Shining...", my (although I should really say our, since so many commenters on the blog and on G+ have contributed to its evolution) campaign setting in which a day lasts 100 years.

As a reprise to those posts, I have just finished a book which may be relevant to your interests - Helliconia Spring, by Brian Aldiss. I had never even heard of this book (part of the "Helliconia" trilogy) until I happened across it in a second-hand book shop a few months ago; I find this beyond surprising, because it is in a strange way a masterpiece of the SF/Fantasy genre.

I say "in a strange way" because the book is flawed - it is granite-hard to get into and the plot moves like a glacier. But simply as a vision it is sublime: a world in a binary star system which orbits one star while that star orbits a much larger one. As the planet comes closer to the larger star, the seasons rapidly warm up, and rapidly cool down as it moves away. In other words, each season lasts over 1000 years. Entire civilizations are formed in spring, rise to their apogee in summer, then die off in winter leaving only ruins behind.

As a description of a fantasy world I can think of few parallels; the planet of Helliconia is itself a character and the extended lyrical sections in which the changing of the seasons is described are stunningly good (they remind me of Kim Stanley Robinson's descriptions of the first explorations of the poles of Mars in Red Mars, still for me probably the tour de force in SF imaginative writing). The book is also notable for having an opening prelude of nigh-on 100 pages set entirely underground - Veins of the Earth, eat your heart out.

Well worth checking out and eminently gameable - nay, crying out for licensing and turning into a campaign setting. The PCs start off at the very turning of winter into spring, going out into the newly thawing wilderness and uncovering the remnants of lost civilizations from the previous summer - as well as weird and wonderful new civilizations being founded in their place. Great stuff.

Friday, 9 June 2017

The Art of the Background

For years now I've used this as my desktop background:


I love it and wrote about it here.

That said, a change is as good as a rest and I think I might give Gawain and the Green Knight and the sorrowful horse a well-earned break. What do you have as your desktop background? And what single piece of fantasy art which I might not have seen would you recommend?

Thursday, 8 June 2017

The Valleys of the Winter People

Alongside BGSJ and another project, I am also working on something tentatively titled The Valleys of the Winter People. It is a hex-crawl-with-dungeons module set in early 19th century Japan. Here is a hex entry:

0301 - The blind necromancer, Yama-no-Itako, wild and hateful, able to commune with the dead and guarded by the wraiths of three dogs. She appears as a shriveled old woman of tiny stature, wearing faded green robes and with the merest wisps of remnant hair on her mostly bald skull. Her paper-like skin barely conceals the blue veins beneath. Her dogs were transformed into wraiths by an ancient ritual in which they were buried up to their necks and starved within sight of food; Yama-no-Itako then fed their spirits in their afterlife and thus bound them to her in infinite loyalty. They are of a lanky, wolf-fighting mountain breed but are invisible to the naked eye except for the long shadows they cast on the ground. Those attacked by them smell earth, death, and dry leaves.

Her modest hut, which contains a bed and some statues of the Buddha, sits in permanent shade in a grove of beech trees on a hilltop. She burns incense which may be scented from 1 mile away; the smoke is visible from 200 yards. She almost never leaves her hovel. Her dogs are always within 30 yards of her.

Yama-no-Itako: 0-level seer. AB 0, AC 12, Move 70. She can Speak with the Dead as a 15th level cleric at will, but only does so in return for communication in reverse; the questioner must reveal a secret for the Itako to pass on to those in the afterlife, at which point all of the dead know it.  
She wears a necklace of pearls taken from freshwater oysters of Lake Usori, near Mount Osore, one of the traditional gateways to the underworld from ancient folklore. There are 16 pearls and each is worth 300 gp; but each also holds a secret. Carved minutely into the white surfaces of the pearls and only visible when held up to the light of the moon are the words and instructions for a spell to Raise the Dead.  
Yama-no-Itako's wraith dogs: HD 5, AC 16*, AB +7, Move 180, Attacks 1 Bite*
*Invisible to the naked eye except for a shadow visible in sunlight. If fought in the open during the day they may be attacked by missile weapons at -6 and melee at -3. If fought at night they may not be attacked at all except in melee, at -4. At night they always act first in initiative order and this supersedes any other special factors affecting initiative.
*The wraith dogs bite with infinite hunger which drains the very life force of those bitten. The victim loses 6 hp (do not roll) which transfer to the dog if it is harmed. 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Fond Memories of a Lost Subgenre

Browsing the shelves of the Fantasy & SF section of your local bookshop, a certain category of novel now seems conspicuous by its absence: the heroic high fantasy trilogies (or multi-volume series) which so characterised the 70s-90s and probably peaked circa 1985. A Song of Ice and Fire - that's all there (though increasingly marketed as "Game of Thrones"). "Dark fantasy", which I think means "Twilight with the serial numbers filed off" - that's all there. Weird fiction (China Mieville and imitators) - that's all there. Apparently there's somebody called "Trudi Caravan" or something who's been writing lots of stuff lately. But whither David Eddings? Whither Julian May? Whither Anne McCaffrey? They are as the dinosaurs to us now; occasionally you find part 2 of some forgotten fantasy trilogy lying under a pile of Catherine Cookson and Stephen King novels in a charity shop or flea market stall, like a piece of a tyrannosaur jawbone poking out of an eroded badlands plateau. Other than that, they have vanished from the popular imagination.

Some favourites spring to mind - favourites not because they were of exceptional quality (I haven't read them in so long that I can't really form a judgement anymore) but because I remember enjoying them as a 12- or 13-year-old desperate for follow-ups to The Lord of the Rings.

Julian May's Saga of the Exiles. I was befuddled and amazed by this series when I first read it - a fantasy series about time travel! With aliens! In the Pleistocene Epoch! With maps of a dried-up Mediterranean Sea in the front covers!



David Eddings's The Malloreon. Eddings wrote such balderdash but I do have fond memories of devouring the five books in this series. The first volume, if I recall, is a gratuitous comedy of manners mainly about the marital problems of the king; there isn't an action sequence until the very end of that installment and the plot doesn't actually get going until the second book. But still.



Weis & Hickman's The Death Gate Cycle. You don't even hear of these books nowadays, but in my distant memory they were a curious but strangely successful mishmash of influences: a world split into fragments signifying earth, air, fire and water in an ancient confrontation between rival races of sorcerers... but also there are elves and dwarves in it. As though Weis and Hickman couldn't quite escape the influence of D&D. Clearly could have been turned into an RPG (and maybe was?).



Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. It stands out to me now as a sort of proto-A Song of Ice and Fire - something grittier and more "realistic" than the other high fantasy series around at the time. I remember vivid and sensitively-written descriptions of combat, psychological complexity, and something to do with magic swords.


There were times when the words "Book One of....[such-and-such a series]" held such excitement and promise. Is that phrase itself doomed to die, as unmourned as the old high fantasy works of yesteryear?

Saturday, 3 June 2017

LotFP Late Edo Period Samurai Classes

And now for something completely different. This is for a project I am working on over the summer, provisionally titled "Samurai Survival Horror Module". Further details will follow in due course. I am just testing these ideas out for now.

Late Edo Period Samurai Classes

Samurai classes all use the following experience table:


Saving Throws
Level/AB
Experience Points
Hit Points
Paralyze
Poison
Breath Weapon
Magical Device
Magic
1/+1
0
1d8
14
12
15
13
16
2/+2
2000
+1d8
14
12
15
13
16
3/+3
4000
+1d8
14
12
15
13
16
4/+4
8000
+1d8
12
10
13
11
14
5/+5
16,000
+1d8
12
10
13
11
14
6/+6
32,000
+1d8
12
10
13
11
14
7/+7
64,000
+1d8
10
8
9
9
12
8/+8
128,000
+1d8
10
8
9
9
12
9/+9
256,000
+1d8
10
8
9
9
12

Noble - The noble has a stern and regal bearing as befits a member of a cadet branch of his lord's family. He gains an additional +1 AB when using a sword. He can also command a human target using his august charisma once a day (the subject has a saving throw). The target loses the saving throw when the noble is at 4th level. 

Foot Soldier - The foot soldier trains continually for war in the service of his lord. While unremarkable in any other way, in this regard at least he is honed like the finest steel. He gains an additional +1 AB when using a spear. He can also, once a day, seize the moment and force his way to the top of the initiative order for one round of combat. He can do this twice at 4th level. 

Brute - The brute has the strength, size, weight and mass of fat and muscle to make him a perfect wrestler and hence blessed. He gains an additional +1 AB when using a naginata, and can cause fear in undead spirits once a day through stamping (the subject has a saving throw). The target loses the saving throw when the brute is at 4th level.

Aesthete - The aesthete's appreciation for the beauty in each passing moment allows him to forget both the future and the past. He gains an additional +1 AB when using a bow, and can utter poetry to aid concentration once a day, allowing him to automatically succeed in the next dice roll (but only if given time to concentrate). At 4th level he can do this twice a day. 

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Tom Bombadil Gambit

I am a big fan of the Tom Bombadil section of The Fellowship of the Ring. (In fact the bit in between the hobbits leaving Hobbiton and arriving in Bree may be my favourite part of the entire trilogy.) I will defend it to the last. But even if you are one of the many who hate it, Tom Bombadil provides an interesting talking point.

If Tolkien had been taking a creative writing class, he would have been warned sternly not to include Tom Bombadil. He violates the "Chekhov's Gun" principle in having no real relevance to the wider plot, and seems in all respects an unnecessary tangent at time of tension in the story. Better to cut him out entirely, as indeed Peter Jackson decided to do. (There was a point when - ha! ha! - Peter Jackson actually had the notion in his head that less could be more. If only he'd stuck to that principle.)

But Tolkien put Tom Bombadil in there quite deliberately to stand as an enigma. I don't think he himself had a clear idea who he was, except for the fact that he seems to instantiate various things Tolkien believed important (pacifism, anti-materialism, humility, etc.). The purpose is to make the reader wonder - nothing more and nothing less.

In gaming, the Tom Bombadil gambit - just putting stuff in the campaign map without a clear idea what they're for or why they're there - can be developed to even better effect than in a novel, because it not only gives he players the opportunity to wonder; at some point the DM can riff on the players' wonderings to work whatever it is into the campaign. What starts off as an enigma can suddenly become useful in that "A ha!" moment when the DM realises that things seem to be fitting together behind the scenes.

I tend to use it more and more and increasingly wonder whether one day I might run a campaign entirely made up of Tom Bombadils. Without really thinking much about it, just jotting down a number of different NPCs, locations, monsters, etc. No planning or thinking about the relations between them whatsoever - until play begins and the PCs start messing with it all.