Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Off-The-Shelf Fantasy Worlds

Having just finished Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, a Christmas present, I can see why it's such a divisive novel. It's a sharply told story, with lots of interesting challenges and characters. It has a smartest-guy-in-room protagonist who skates just on the right side of insufferable. It has, dare I say, a well-thought-out magic system that puts sorcery side by side with science.

But, but, but. The world in this novel - cramped, generic, no great vistas of space or time. If there is a fault of American fantasy authors, at least those who do not do their research like Wolfe and Martin or drink deep of the weird well like Vance and Clark Ashton Smith, it's that they have no sense of the strangeness of history. Their worlds (for example, Donaldson, Eddings, Jordan, Gary Gygax when he turned his pen to fiction, and now Rothfuss) tend to default to a kind of off-the-shelf pre-industrial idyll.

Although sometimes compared to the cod-archaism of a Renaissance faire, the better comparison of these fantasylands - aptly for the young age of the American republic - is to a nineteenth century sans gunpowder or steam. No feudal ties, ancien regime, or dead hand of the past burden these republican minds in a nominal monarchy. The sparse areas recall the Wild West, complete with the ever-present taverns and bartenders; farmed areas populated by sturdy Midwestern yeomen; cities as Dickensian hives of colorful crooks, pompous officials, and kindly benefactors; Rothfuss' University not too far away, either, from the Tom Brown's School Days playbook more famously cribbed by J. K. Rowling.  Chattel slavery stays away from fantasyland, perhaps a wish that by going back to mock-Europe and eliminating black and red people from the narrative, one can also wish away that ugly resonance of American history. (Credit must go to Orson Scott Card for confronting the mythology and history of the American frontier head-on in his Seventh Son series.)

In other regards the generic fantasyland shies away even from the strangeness of the nineteenth century and before. Yes, the trend has been to write that era's dialogue in the stilted literary language it left behind (David Milch's Deadwood, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain) but I'm talking about more intangible things. The rules on affectionate relations between the sexes, and within the sexes, were different. Honor and reputation counted for more. But the generic American fantasy writer tries to buy our sympathy by making the main characters "just like us" - or better - in personal and sexual mores.

Now British makers of fantasy worlds grow up in cities and countryside filled with ancient ruins, partitioned by ancient boundaries, ditches, roads and hedges. If anything, their sins of laziness are to view history too much from the modern eye, either gussied up in the twee accents of folklore or vulgarized in the manner of the "Horrible Histories" children's books into a panorama of gross-outs and sadism.

It's hard enough to find good psychological historical fiction - novels that present characters who are sympathetic but also believably alien, like Aubrey and Maturin, Patrick O'Brien's archetypal Tory-Whig duo from the age of fighting sail. But to construct a fantasy that comes with its own psychology -- the casual cruelties of Gene Wolfe under a sun that may go out any moment, for example, or the low-tech future African witchcraft of Nnedi Okorafor - that is what I would most see as worthwhile to read. Anything out there?

Monday, 29 December 2014

The Gungame

I would never have predicted I'd be playing the Ungame with one of my inlaw families over Christmas break. But that, plus a viewing of Fargo, leads to this.

Get a Fiasco ruleset. Assign characters, relationships, etc.

Then, instead of playing Fiasco, play a game within a game. Your lowlife Fiasco characters are trapped in a community rehab house, playing an hour's worth of the Ungame . Answer the questions from their point of view. The challenge is to tell a story through the playing of the game. Good luck!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Fire World

The next in the series of environment-specific, d20/d20/d20 tables. Hot enough for you? Water is next ... actually fresh water, as my plan calls for separate "water" and "sea" tables.

As a reminder, the table is also available in pop-up format.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

DFD Redux

Well, today my confidential agent passed on the copies of Death Frost Doom and Red & Pleasant Land obtained at Dragonmeet.

Red & Pleasant ... I'm still digesting. But here are the two most revelatory things about the
Raggi/Zak/Jez/et al. DFD rework/reprint, at least when it comes to adventure writing..

One, the writing starts out with a very brief rumor and some ways (aimed at the referee) to get the players into the situation. And then the adventure. There is no turgid, omniscient history drop ("and in the year 853 by the Dronish Calendar the Great Tetrarch decreed..."), no dull and generic village, no table of rumors.

The place has a history ...and mysteries ... but these are revealed as the players would see them, through the areas of the adventure. Anything that isn't revealable through the adventure isn't part of the text.

Two - and related in some way to One - the writing is aimed directly at the referee. Suggestions made, campaign-specific adjustments insinuated, multiple mechanical options outlined, previous printings and actual play runs referred to, soundtrack suggested. Again, there is no omniscient hokey-pokey, but neither are descriptions short. Likely player choices are boldfaced in the text and the ensuing effects described after.

What this all suggests is that history should be a scaffolding, to keep continuity correct and provide grist for specifics, but needs to be tucked away in an Appendix or even conveniently forgotten for the final product. The start of the adventure should draw the DM/reader in, allowing them to share in the discovery that the players will later experience in a much more immersive way.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Least Plausible Word in "Dungeons And Dragons"


A twisty, constricted subterranean maze.
Food is hard to find.
The monsters get harder as you go down levels from the surface.
The toughest, hardest monster in the dungeon is ...

The dragon:

A large flying meat-eating creature.
Pretty formidable in combat ... unless attacked from the back with no way to turn around.

So shouldn't it be "Dungeons vs. Dragons"?

Monday, 1 December 2014

Mad Archmage Campaign: Village Invasion

I realize these play reports may  not be the most exciting reading, but hell with it, I do need to document my campaigns like this, and it helps the players if this kind of collective memory is preserved.

In the meantime, I do have about three more meaty posts on the slow, slow go.

And still bummed I have to miss Dragonmeet this year.

Session, Nov 30, 2014

Fingauble, the wizard who had been paying the Lightning's Hand party to grant access to the library of the Mad Archmage, opened negotiations with the Muleteers for a cheaper deal if they could find out the secret to opening the doors, which he thought was a password. After reviewing their analysis of the 25 puzzle rooms he opined that they must have made an error somewhere, and that there should be a way to determine in what order the path adds letters of rooms to the word. The Muleteers inadvertently gave away their guesses about the password to the final interior door of the library, which Fingauble "charitably" repaid by casting a Detect Magic spell for free. Fingauble further agreed to give the party 50 pieces of gold and a scroll and holy robe that would help in fighting the demons in the upper castle cellars if they gave him the secret to entering the library.

The next day, Grimnir wandered off and the remaining Muleteers headed to the Castle to study the puzzle rooms. On the way, they were approached by a pack of five beak dogs, which their tame beak dog seemed all too eager to meet. As the beak dogs loped toward them, they staked down the tame dog and opened up with missiles. The pack charged and managed to seriously injure Erasmo's head and arm, also giving Titus a good scare with a near-miss beak to the throat, so that against such odds there was no such choice but to flee. The beak dogs soon freed their fellow beast and after a short test of dominance accepted him into the pack. With what remained of the day the Muleteers decided to make haste to the Grey City, leaving the still-injured Nixington and Erasmo in Garyburgh to heal more.

On arriving at the Silver Eel Inn these travellers found a large beer cart parked outside and a drinking contest about to begin courtesy of the Fickle Firkin brewery. The contest was eventually won by a dwarf (of course) but for a while Winmore held him neck and neck, and got a forty ounce bottle of beer as a runner-up prize. The members of the party were wheeled into their rooms afterward.

Back in Garyburgh, in the common room of the Wizard's Wench, as the end of the evening drew into sight, a peasant ran in shouting "Orcs in the fields!" The initial order of battle of the defenders of the village consisted of the barkeep and a following of drunkards; Captain Rurik and a detachment of six Grey City-State guards; the novice adventuring party Free Roamers, down to four active members after taking injuries in a fight with kobolds; the five-strong Lightning's Hand, their lightning wand, alas, depleted; and the weakened, leg-maimed Muleteer wizard Nixington.

The night was wracked by strong-gusting winds and rain. The defenders saw torch lights behind a line of trees and charged there, only to find the lights were an illusion, and came back to find the village green surging with Bloody Axe orcs, the same tribe seen and fought in the dungeons. Nixington, exposed, almost took an arrow. Spellcast and sound fighting held off the central thrust of the attack, but not before another Free Roamer went down injured. Fingauble came down the stair of the inn, grumbling about roisterers outside disturbing his sleep, opened a window and casually lobbed a ten die fireball into the midst of a cluster of orcs before heading back upstairs.

But on the flank, fighting between the houses, orcs slaughtered the barkeep and drunks, then outflanked and slew all but one of the guards. An old man was spotted at the back of their ranks, consorting with a baboon and two young, strong fellows - the same group the party had heard tell of before, travelling to Garyburgh and then vanishing. This old man was a spell caster, incapacitating foes with stinking vapors and placing a charm on Rurik. When the flanking group emerged into the square and saw charred bodies and smoldering grass, they beat a retreat into the night, Rurik among them.

In the morning after the slaughter, it became clear that no law or government would be left in Garyburgh, as Pennypacker the tax collector loaded a cart with worldly goods and family and set off back to safer places. For now, it was enough to bury the dead: 10 humans and more than 20 orcs. One captive orc commander remained to tell the tale.

Friday, 21 November 2014

When Many Adventurers Do One Thing

Sometimes the efforts of many add neatly, as when many arms try to lift a gate.

Other times, they add imperfectly, as when many eyes try to sight or many ears to hear. It's a mix of varying factors: what's being sensed "out there" and the individual's attention. The individual can only contribute so much.

Other times, additional hands are useless, as when picking a lock, or downright counterproductive, as when many people try to hide or sneak.

In a game, very few skills add neatly except for the sheer application of brute force. Those that add uselessly should be obvious. Which leaves the imperfect and the counterproductive situations to deal with.

So when adding skills imperfectly (and why not, there are diminishing returns even when opening a door because only so many people can get good leverage):

One person = one check
2-3 people = 2 checks
4-7 people = 3 checks, made by the 3 best people
8-15 = 4 checks, made by the 4 best, and so on.

Each power of 2 adds another check.

And when skills interfere - as when a large group is trying to sneak:

One person =one check
2 people = 2 checks
Up to 4 people = 3 checks, made by the 3 worst people
Up to 8 = 4 checks, made by the 4 worst, and so on.
Up to 16 = 5 checks and so on.

Failure by any one means noise is made or they can be seen.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Junji Ito's Psychological Horrors

Pure body horror only goes skin deep. Although Junji Ito's stories sometimes try for little more than pure gross-out (most successfully in Glyceride, with its palpable conflation of grease, fat, meat and acne) the best ones touch on psychological anxieties below the surface.

Western stories often present the loss of individuality as a horrific fate. In Poe it's the 19th century horror that a gentleman's reputation might be ruined by a debauched double, in The Case of Mr. Pelham, possibly the best episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (by Cockrell and Armstrong), it's the 20th century horror that your salaryman double might be better, more confident, harder working than you. Think about the end of 1984, or of The Stepford Wives.

Junji Ito sometimes writes from the other point of view. What if the horror is not to lose your individuality, but to have it?  What if the monster is personalized; what if the horror is not in being forgotten, but in being targeted and sought out? Japanese culture may be particularly sensitive to this question, as its collectivist tradition collides with a postwar individualist modernity.

Spoilers, of course, follow.

Enigma of Amigara Fault (previously) and Hanging Balloons both evoke the horror of individuality. In Enigma, perfectly personalized holes in the rock call out to people, seducing and ultimately warping them. In Balloons, large balloons with the faces of individuals appear, pursuing their originals with pendant nooses and relentless cunning. Despite their preposterous premises, both stories succeed in haunting the reader with unease, a clue that deeper allegories are at work here.

The Internet uses personal data as a kind of soul you can sign away for content and functionality and connectivity. But it seems that people only get creeped out when reminded explicitly who has their data - when Google puts up an ad that's a little too close to the content of one of your emails. And in the case of identity theft, or getting doxxed, the creepy becomes frightening. Ito's stories from the 90's prefigure the anxieties of hyper-personalization. Significantly, the first victim of the Hanging Balloons is a celebrity; fame as a curse.

In gaming it is all too easy to put the players in the eye of peril, thanks to the omniscience of the game master. One of the best instances is in Death Frost Doom when the characters find a portrait of themselves. The doppleganger is a well-known adversary, and the corny plot hook of being the "ones spoken of in prophecy" can have as much dread as promise resting in it..

A particularly evil twist would be to confront the party not with their exact doubles, but with a group of rivals that by coincidence duplicates their class and character concepts ... only with a turn toward the cliche side. The fair and noble warrior becomes a bland do-gooder, the sneaky thief has the brooding and antiheroic angst turned up off the dial, and so on. Who dares steal the most vital element of player character identification - individuality?

If modern individuality is scary in Ito's world, so is tradition. I wish I could just erase time and have "human centipede" refer instead to the monster in My Dear Ancestors. This less gross, more disturbing insect is made up of a centuries-old chain of brains, skulls and hair, each one growing on the next head (literally) of the family. The allegory about the dead weight of obligation is heavy, but not heavy-handed, as the lineage-beast is revealed as the sinister force behind its only heir's courtship of our heroine.  The composite creature practically writes itself as a monster, and in a world of wizardry, might represent an accumulation of power to rival even the oldest lich.

Ito's psychological adroitness comes through even in the stories that fail. In Ice Cream Bus, a divorced father's need to win his son's affection is expertly twisted as he finally gives in and lets the kid go onto the titular vehicle, and, well, what do you expect from the free ice cream rides around the block? The strong point is the sticky sweetness of ice cream as a bland mask for unspeakable desires, from the moms purring after the handsome ice cream man, to the unforgettable glimpse of mounds of ice cream inside the bus, children crawling and licking away on them. The denouement, sadly, falls flat and silly - a less literal, less fantastic final horror would have worked better.

Another chilling story with an unsatisfying ending is House of Puppets. Here we consider how people may choose to live as puppets - exerting no energy, their limbs responding to the impulses of puppeteers living in the upper story, freed from the difficulty of life. There are shades of Erich Fromm's "escape from freedom" here, but also of the more sinister tones of Thomas Ligotti's existential horror. Not  coincidentally does Ligotti also make use of puppets and dolls as he opens up the nihilistic possibilities of denying and rejecting the self.

Ito's supernatural, trite turn betrays the real possibilities of the setting. Psychology experiments, from Milgram's Cyranoids to Wegner's less well known explorations of the merely perceptual nature of agency, leave it a real possibility that the sensation of self in ourselves is an illusion; that things we think we have done are the work of unconscious automatisms. Now imagine the surrender of something as precious as the self as an ambiguous horror, pulsing also with relief.

Fantasy gives us such a possibility through magic, so that a critical failure to save against a charm effect might indicate a Stockholm syndrome- a newly acquired flunky whose lack of initiative is as disturbing and counterproductive as it is useful.

Or for a more perverse act of gamemastering, offer a Faustian bargain; through sorcery, the control of a player's character to be transferred to an altogether more competent agency, unearthing powers and possibilities, earning experience at a double clip while so possessed, seemingly (or in a shocker, actually) working for the good of the character and the party with inside knowledge and superior craft.

What price freedom, indeed?

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Junji Ito's Body Horror

Junji Ito is a manga artist you may know through the widespread dissemination of his horror piece, Enigma of Amigara Fault; the one where an earthquake exposes many human-shaped holes in a cliff face. 

That story is one of his best and also a fair representation of his method in general. Ito specializes in presenting situations at the far edge of plausibility and driving them through to their halluci-logical conclusion. His illustration style, seemingly stuck in the late 80's for normal characters and scenes, opens up into meticulously stippled and hatched vistas when rendering abominations up close. As those who follow through to the end will see, body horror is his main theme, with occasional psycho-horror and ghost story digressions.

NOTE: Fan translations of many of his works are available online.

Spoilers follow.

Although he sometimes traffics in monsters, his most compelling works are better seen as curses, documenting unnatural misfortunes and transformations of the once-normal body. After all, the monster can be straightforwardly fought; the curse confounds this impulse by tying the horror to a human person, deserving of our care. Sometimes literally, attempts to destroy the monster will destroy the person; a technique I picked up recently in running a semi-improvised game, where among other Boschian horrors, a monstrous fish gaped, disclosing a terrified victim imprisoned behind golden bars; what was done to the fish, happened also to the victim. 

Ito uses this dilemma in Blood-Bubble Bushes, Hanging Balloons, and memorably in Slug Girl:

In this curse, the tongue grows thick over a period of several days, eventually transforming into an living but rooted swollen slug. An even more gruesome transformation is in store, in the manga a result of the parents' attempt to salt the slug-tongue out, but in a game it can happen naturally: the body withers away, leaving the slug to pull along the still conscious head.

The curse is contagious; coming upon a nest of heads and skulls with fat, pink, living tongues, under no circumstance must they be allowed to slime open, uninfected flesh.

The curse in Red Turtleneck is also, more directly, about the head.

By wrapping a hair around the victim's neck, or tricking them into wearing an object around the neck with the magically treated hair inside, the head detaches from the body by an imperceptibly thin cut. It must be held on rigidly to have any hope of being healed. The manga story itself gets unbearably silly about two thirds of the way through but the basic idea is gripping. For best effect make it unclear whether the curse is real or a delusion, complete with psychosomatic bleeding around the neck.

Ito's masterwork of body horror is the long-form Uzumaki, a suite of increasingly connected variations on the horrific potential of spirals. Various victims: become rolled up like a Swiss roll in cross-section; sprout grotesque warts like a unicorn's horn; grow an inward-spiraling mark on the forehead that consumes more and more; grow a spiral mark on the back that humps outward, transforming them into a giant snail; get rubbery limbs that twist like snakes mating; and the best curse of all, the curse of outlandish spiral hairdos that grant medusa-like shock and awe and hypnosis and choking and grabbiness at the cost of major Constitution drain and the hair getting ideas of its own ...

And variations in counterpoint; like the woman early on who becomes terrified of the natural spirals of her body; or the way the environment expresses the spiral curse, with air, water, earth and the town itself succumbing to vorticist force and form.

With one final idea for gaming: the shape as theme for an adventure, cult or region. The spiral expressed in an array of spiral jewelry, sphincter-like doors and pits, spring-loaded traps, flail snails, air elementals, curling snakes and worms, morkoth labyrinths, hypnotic patterns, maze spells.

The triangle, the zigzag ... the disk.

The horror.

Next: Junji Ito's psycho-social horror.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Baroque Tricks, Traps and Hazards

So many of the old evergreen roleplaying tricks were prefigured (or just plain figured) in Gary Gygax's Supplement I: Greyhawk. Among them:

The "monster body" dungeon.
The shrinking ray.
Looting monster corpses for built-in treasure.
Animated plants and furniture.
Items which cause warning devices to fail and alertness to wane (the beginning of a long slippery slope into giving with one hand and taking away with the other...)

As well as less perennial ones such as

A box of animal crackers which will come to life when grasped ...

Anyway, with all this in mind may I present the next installment of the 52 Baroque Pages - including a few twists on old tricks. Click it to enlarge ...

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Shahmaran

I have never before heard about this mythological creature from Kurdistan and the Yezidi tradition... depicted as a woman whose head and chest are stuck on the back end of a backwards-facing basilisk. With what's going on in the world the Kurds need the protection of this benevolent "queen of serpents" more than ever.

HD: 9
AC: 16 [3]
MV: 12"
Attacks: Snake bite (d8); spells
Defenses: Immune to poison, 50% magic resistance, poison scales
Mind: Genius

The Shahmaran may or may not be unique. Known as the "Queen of the Snakes," this benevolent guardian dwells in desolate places and ruins. She appears as an eight-legged giant basilisk with a snake head at the end of a long, flexible tail, and a queenly human head at the front, both sprouting crown-like arrays of horns.  If attacked she will strike with the snake's poisonous bite. Creatures who attempt to bite her scaly part must save vs. poison at -4 or die.

A Shahmaran usually is preceded or guarded by numerous snakes of all sizes, typically 2d6 serpent swarms, 2d6 normal snakes and d4 giant snakes of various types. She has magical spells as a 9th level druid, oriented toward divination and animal summoning spells, which will invariably summon snakes.

Despite her terrifying appearance Shahmaran is a benevolent creature, and sometimes takes a human lover, although those who have known her are unable to bathe without shedding snake-like scales ever thereafter.  They guard their wisdom closely, but each kiss from them conveys one cosmic secret, which some lovers of weak mind have been unable to handle. Shahmaran are the mortal enemies of lamia.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Nonhuman Vision

Imaginative literature works best when realism constrains it just enough to create interesting solutions, but not enough to impede drama and archetype. Example: Gene Wolfe's idea in Book of the New Sun that eating someone's brain, with the proper chemical preparations, would convey all their memories, was built up whole from these now-discredited experiments. Realism produced the idea, but was not allowed to stifle it.

In this vein, the old idea of ultravision and infravision from AD&D suggests that races gifted with those abilities can also perceive radiant and reflected light in those frequencies as different colors. Materials they make will be bright with these hues; seemingly dull surfaces actually alive to those who can see.


Technological infrared thermography uses the medium-wavelength infrared (3000-5000 nanometers) to detect heat radiation and the long-wavelength infrared (8000-14000 nanometers) to detect visible objects through emission and reflection of ambient light. Beings with the hypothetical infravision that acts as more than just heat vision thus would possess the ability to detect both sources of radiation, though with fairly low resolution at distance (hence the ranges of only 20 or 30 meters.) Dwarves differ from goblins and the like in the visibility of the light emitted by their eyes to attain infrared vision; goblins emit light in the visible spectrum, the "red glow" that often gives them away.

Indeed, these two sources give two different colors, the medium-wavelength vinth and the long-wave aggal. The rest is speculation.

Vinth is a hue associated in dwarven culture with life, blood, love and warmth, usurping the place of red (which stands for rulership and power).

Aggal is one of the colors of minerals, gems and metals and gives information about their quality that is lacking in the visible spectrum. It is associated with home, structures, wealth and the underground.

In many underground dwarven settlements (including the sealed one, Xabul, currently being investigated by the Band of Iron), it is traditionally considered gauche, at very best a concession to outlanders, to bear visible light sources in public areas. Visible light is reserved for private life, wherein physical flaws and features can be seen better.

Dwarves have developed paints that appear to humans as a matte lacquer, but which reflect in the spectra of vinth and aggal, and have identified similar dyes among the plantstuffs of the upper world. Thus dwarven clothing and outer decoration often seems drab, but is actually rich in infrared color, while their home furnishings and private garments are more gaudy in the visible spectra. Of course, the paints are also used for markings and writings that dwarves do not want outsiders to see. A notable example is the Hall of Diplomacy built in Gorondhevl by King Frumo the Plainspoken; the noble figures of humans and elves in the murals are subtly touched-up in aggal to create lines of caricature that render them laughable, unbeknownst to their emissaries.


The reflective colors of the ultraviolet spectrum are present in flowers, birds and insects, and can be seen also by birds and insects. Scientifically, the ability of elves to see in the ultraviolet spectrum has little to do with their outdoor night-vision, which just boosts the signal of ambient light. Magical light also emits bold and disruptive radiation in the ultraviolet spectrum.

Elves do not use the ultraviolet as secretively as dwarves do the infrared. Some examples of writing in secret inks and so on have been recorded, but in the main, elves are content to treat their extra wavelengths as an aesthetic experience. Often an embroidery is seen on an elf's garments which looks to be a complex tracery in monochrome or very similar hues, but which makes more sense in ultraviolet. Ultracolors are shunned by wood elves in everyday dress; however, their festive clothes use them so liberally that other kinds of elves consider this to be in poor taste.

The two primary ultrahues, with many more specific elvish poetic synonyms according to their brightness and saturation, are:

Ulvian (280-380 nanometer)
Associations: hazy air at night, stillness after violent passion, certain flowers, incidental light from magic items
Matches: violet and green

Briolant (200-280 nanometer)
Associations: stars, butterfly wings, inspiration, return of sensation, certain flowers, direct light from spells
Matches: orange and yellow


Humans who have been given the ability to see beyond their usual spectrum through a spell, or through a natural variation, often report strange aesthetic feelings, a sense that undermines the realization that their experience sets them apart from other. Those under an infravision or ultravision spell who have seen particularly exquisite examples of art in those colors will often spend time peering at drab surfaces with complex patterns, hoping to see just a little shimmer of those, those colors.

 (Tip of the hat to Noah Stevens for suggesting the color names vinth and briolant.)

Monday, 13 October 2014

Misheard Spells

Flay Marrow
Nasty save-or-die spell created by insensitive necromancers.
Whiz or Die
Creates the sudden urge to urinate in a bladder-having creature. Experienced adventurers know it's more than a prank. 

Char Monster
If you can't persuade them, envelop them in a pyrocaust.

Ice Dorm
Briefly fashionable pinnacle of the brief misheard spells fashion, creates a habitation out of five walls of ice complete with ice beds, ice benches and ice bar fully stocked with ice bottles, ice glasses, and vodka.

Wall of Ire
A curtain of red, snarling faces that forces all crossing it with Animal intelligence or above to save or cringe back.

Phased Oar
Allows you to make an oar that phases into the ethereal plane and back in a minute. Invented around the time when the misheard spells fad was rapidly reaching exhaustion point.

Colors Pray
A rainbow blast of seven prismatic hues, each one having the effect of a random cleric spell from the 1st (red) through 7th (violet) level lists, and whether reversed or not also being random. Usually hurts people, but you never know.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Megadungeon Playtest Without the Dungeon

Last Saturday in London we had a small meetup of variously 8-10 Old School gamers who couldn't wait for Dragonmeet (wait, Dragonmeet has an updated website and schedule in early October? Surely these are the last days and times...)

In the corner of a pub near Euston Station, it was decided that I should run the first game, an encounter with pregenerated 52 Pages first-levels going after the low-level bandits holed up in caves near the entrance of my megadungeon project, Manden Gouge.

A rough idea of the style
I haven't talked much about this project - preferring to show rather than tell, perhaps overcorrecting for the tendency of gamers to hype vaporware.  As of now I have about 120 areas written up, enough for the first installment, which now lacks only a bunch of connecting material. The design goals are:
  • Emphasis on exploration, finding out the history of the nearly abandoned castle Karthew's Legacy and the warrens beneath.
  • Setting-neutral - can be dropped into almost any pseudo-European fantasy world with few assumptions about the universe
  • Subverting cliches -- few things, be they monsters or treasure, are "by the book"
  • Detailed rather than general descriptions -- but detail for a purpose.
  • "Gormenghast" feel to the upper rooms and cellars of the castle -- a society of eccentric inhabitants, with mad and dangerous things lurking in the corners, left by a long line of previous weirdos
  • Run-friendly, with detail maps and monster stats on the same page as descriptions
  • Lots of goodies -- a menu table, social relations map, reference illustrations for the player, a dream dungeon-within-the-dungeon, family tree and heraldry
And that's all folks - no Kickstarter, no hype, no set date. You'll see it when it's here.

Anyway, following up a mission hook to deal with some bandits with the advantage of night-vision, the party decided to set a counter-ambush for the bandits and then lure them out of their cave, managing to bag the leader under a dropped goods cart thanks to Barry's creative abuse of the Featherweight spell. So the megadungeon playtest never entered the megadungeon. But I'll be damned if I railroad.
Eggs on a Plate Without the Plate - Salvador Dali
Then Barry took the reins for an adventure in Tekumel using Lamentations rules -- a really nice introduction to that exotic and hierarchical setting that had the party carrying out a tenement eviction, with rainy, moldy atmospherics that brought to mind a cross between The Raid and Se7en.

It was a great day with the opportunity to put faces to a lot of names across the British blogosphere and G+alaxy. I hope there's another such one of these days.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Back and Forth and Sideways in Time

Last time I offered a breakdown of all the different ways a fantasy world could be tied to our own. Commenters offered a couple of extra ways, which I'll incorporate into this next phase: further describing the plot moves available to the creative world-rigger with each arrangement. This post covers the first three of (now) 14 arrangements.

1. You are in Earth's far or mythic past. 


  • prehistoric animals are everywhere 
  • important names, maybe distorted, are recognizable as legendary heroes and places (Tolkien pulled this off with the lost continent called by some "Atalante" and reverse-engineered his language so that worked and also Artur means "noble lord")
  • euhemerism is in effect so the local king may be called Lord Horus and his shield is a hawk and his chief advisor is the one-eyed Wizard Odin and in the throne room hangs the Golden Fleece 
  • the maps have familiar if somewhat skewed shapes
  • early-civ signifiers like ziggurats, human sacrifice, eyeliner and chariots are mixed in with the magitech and rustless pillars
  • sense of boundless possibilities and newness. 

  •  "The magic is drying up" as in Larry Niven's stories
  • a cataclysm is impending that little of the weird stuff will survive past, paving the way for the world as we know it
  • you are trapped in a stasis cell destined to disgorge you sometime in Earth's timeline. Perhaps some deep-earth miners will find you. Have fun! 
2. You are in the present world's future.


  • the creatures and peoples that you meet show signs of fanciful mutation, alien origin, genetic engineering
  • your legends are of modern-day celebrities, your place names worn-down distortions, look hard enough and you can find the Statue of Liberty, beware the Belieber Cult 
  • the familiar maps are all marked up by global warming and nuclear megacraters and deserts and unspecified cataclysmic events 
  • artifacts of the old world are everywhere or incredibly rare, depending on how much time has passed, sometimes tended by engineers of St. Leibowitz indistinguishable from a priesthood 
  • sense of late-days malaise like in Dying Earth or Riddley Walker: the minerals are all mined, every tale has been told, there are no new genres of music just unfashionable ones, the sun could go out at any moment 


  • stasis works both ways, and some 21st century people who have just unwarped/ unfrozen/ unmirrored expecting utopia are having their expectations cruelly, cruelly broken 
  • they're trying to bring back the Technology of the Ancients but of course they're about to do it horribly wrong 
  • those deep-space near-lightspeed astronauts from the old order's final days are baaack 
3. You are in a parallel dimension, communicable with Earth.


  • strange wanderers who talk funny, dress funny, carry weird objects and drop completely baffling pop culture references 
  • doctrine and teaching of the Multiverse, every schoolchild knows 
  • someone in the distant past came, saw, conquered based on superior native technology, gravity, or disbelief of magic - and disappeared conveniently when things got hot 
  • ethereal creatures and travelers sing strangely familiar and catchy songs 

  • fair enough, you find the gateway in the basement of Castle Greyhawk 
  • one of those strange wanderers rolls up on you and is trying to convince you to make all these mixtures and build all these weird devices and is telling you when the next eclipse is going to be and you don't have the heart to tell him about 9th level spells 
  •  oh psych that other universe isn't exactly our Earth it's a parallel universe Earth where ..

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Bridges to Reality

Let's define "autonomous fantasy": a work about a world not our own, without attempting within the text to place the created world in relation to our own world (henceforth known as "Earth").

But if you look at literature, autonomous fantasy is actually pretty rare. George R. R. Martin's wildly popular world is one such world. But most of the D&D inspiration list "Appendix N" is not. Most of the works there have some kind of link between the fantasy world and the real Earth.

Below is a list of the ways in fantasy world-building to link the created world ("you") to our own Earth. The list is, of course, exhaustive (this claim is meant to stir the blood to objection, so object away!)

It is also only coincidence that there are twelve is the number of entries in the list and twelve is the number of sides of that funny-looking die you have lying on your table there. Please do not leave such momentous decisions as the very nature of reality to the whim of the roll.

1. You are in Earth's far or mythic past.
Examples: Tolkien's Middle Earth, Howard's barbarians, Moorcock's Melnibone

2. You are in the real world's future
Examples: Wolfe's New Sun, Lanier's Hiero, Gerber's Thundarr the Barbarian, Okorafor's Who Fears Death, Boulle's Planet of the Apes

3. You are in a parallel dimension, communicable to Earth
Examples: D&D's default cosmos, Pratt & De Camp's Incomplete Enchanter, Moorcock's multiverse

4. You are on a distant planet where fantasy/magic holds sway
Examples: Farmer's World of Tiers, Barker's Tekumel, McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern

5. Your world and Earth are both the dream/simulation/shadow of a higher world
Example; Zelazny's Amber series

6. You are in the dream of someone on Earth
Examples: Lovecraft's Dreamlands, McCay's Little Nemo

The rest have less of a fictional pedigree to my knowledge, but are no less fascinating.

7. You are in a simulation run by someone on Earth
8. Earth is the dream of someone on your world
9. Your world is the afterlife of Earth
10. Earth is the afterlife of your world
11. You are in a fiction maintained by someone on Earth (the literal truth, and the doctrine of Narrativism, no, not that kind of Narrativism)
12. The wall is absolute (Westeros and all other self-contained worlds such as Earthsea)

At any rate, each idea suggests itself strongly as a Big Reveal that is hinted at in the middle of a fantasy gaming campaign, and that outright drives events in the later stages of such a campaign. And in the next post: what implications each of these ideas carry.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

52 Baroque Encounter Starts

Go on then, have another.

This one is not quite so teeming as the previous, more practical, but such is the nature of the rules page it was spawned from. It's divided up into a number of smaller dice tables that still add up to 52 options. I think these eight categories pretty much cover anything you might throw at your players.

Click to enlarge.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

52 Baroque Treasures

Continuing the slow and artesanal release of the 52 Baroque Pages, the next production is 52 exotic treasures sorted more or less by value. Click to enlarge. Here's the generator link for instant pop-up results!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Chain Roach

Tell your comforting tales of mad wizards if you like. Human perversity, after all, is small, but unnatural selection is the chain roaches' mother and perhaps yours too.

The small form is a blattid centipede of seven to twelve roaches, joined ass-to-mouth in descending order of size, moving and digesting as one.  The chitin is as strong as human skin but give it four points of defense for small size and skittery inclinations, and it moves half as fast as you can trot. It does not have hit points, rather individual roaches, d6+6 of them. When you hit, one roach is squashed, plus one for every 4 damage you do, and roll d8-1 for how close to the head you hit, maximum = number of remaining roaches; all but that number of roaches scatter from the chain.

The main weapon of a small chain roach is disgust. On a successful hit ignoring armor it climbs on you. The next round and subsequent it has a 10% chance each of finding the mouth, nose, ear or nether orifices. Throwing off a roach chain requires a successful bare-hand hit, -2 if it is on your back parts. Invasion by roaches is completely attention-consuming and requires a saving throw to expel the roach chain. Each round you have a 5% chance of contracting disease from each roach chain on you and 15% from each roach chain in you.

On occasion multiple chain roaches will knit together to create a wide scarf roach of 5d6+6 individuals. Its statistics are similar, but more roaches. The front roaches will often acquire a couple of stabbing or slicing implements: broken knife blades, iron spikes, knitting needles, and soon. Thus, when crawling on you a scarf roach does not seek to invade, but instead stabs for d3 damage each time. The chance of infection per round is 10% if a scarf roach is just crawling on you and 20% if it has opened some wounds.

If ten or more roaches are scuttling around the area - either naturally or because some chain roaches have taken damage - any chain or scarf roach in the area will regenerate 1 roach per round from this pool.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Gencon 2014 Report

GenCon this year was one of those experiences where I knew what I wanted to do, I did it in moderation, and it went well, producing a satisfied feeling. I wanted to:

* Play and run old school roleplaying games, meeting up with like-minded players and writers.

I think my first ever appearance on the official GenCon Schedule was a success, running the Mule scenario. Despite a few glitches in my preparation, the players had fun facing the challenges and coming out with all six slots on the Necromule filled with named corpses.

The midnight run happened on my Five Rings group's party floor, and while a little more distracted by raucous goings on, drinking and equipment mishaps, did take the players to a different area of the Crypts with a strange social encounter and a rousing final combat against plague zombies, who yielded only two nameable corpses.

On Saturday I went and played in Tavis' ACKS scenario using a Dyson Logos map and exploring an ancient tomb. A really good group of creative role-players assembled, including Tavis' 12 year old son, and I'm grateful he found space for me. We ate a burger, discussing insider stuff about the Dwimmermount kickstarter with one of the backers, and then headed off to our party floor to play a really good off-the-grid Ars Magica introductory scenario with GM Rob. Even better, Brian "Trollsmyth" Murphy stopped by briefly to say hi.

* Try new games of all descriptions.

Thursday morning kicked off with a definite "SCORE" at Gaming On Demand- getting first pick and picking Jason Morningstar's run of The Warren, an Apocalypse World game that does Watership Down/Bunnies & Burrows. Jason's scenario was a bayou with appropriate creatures and challenges, including a memorable Cajun raccoon named Boupignon. AW rules sets seem to hit the right notes between rules-light and cool subsystems. In particular my rabbit, Tunguska, made good use of the Seer procedure in which the other players write single words on pieces of paper and the seer has to make up a vision involving them.

I did the usual walking the dealer hall and trying new games. I can report that a) playing a demo and then not being able to buy the game because it will be "out in November" is a frustrating experience b) if you walk on to an empty demo table it may be because the game sucks; good games seem to create their own buzz and interest c) so the only game I played and got was the PvP deckbuilder Star Realms, whose computer version is indeed fiendishly addictive. Also bought the usual ton of miniatures and accessories, and got but did not play Hillfolk - my impulse is to start with anything but the.vanilla-Hebrews default setting.

Also memorable - bottom feeding on the party floor (thanks Eric, I think) with weird card games using Magic mechanics for questionable simulational purposes, like Ultimate Combat where mana is "conditioning" and "fighting spirit" and so forth and creatures are combat moves, all illustrated with amateur photos of karate dojos -- or god help me, Furoticon where the mana is one of four genders and you can send minions to block your enemy's erotic assault before your orgasm points or whaatever are worn down.

* Do some networking.

As well as catching up and connecting with the new brand manager for the L5R CCG, and other people in that enterprise, I went to a seminar "Gaming as Other" where useful advice was given about helping to diversify the gaming world, and made some more connections there. There is even some possibility of a seminar next year on academic research and non-computer gaming. Would be great if I could wrangle my research fund to pay for the trip...

We're all getting older. There is less wild partying,more retiring at a reasonable hour, more reaching out and getting into new spheres of activity. Jet lag kicks my ass, too. But as a way to spend part of your vacation it's not half bad.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Running 5th Edition

I wanted to introduce D&D to my other brother-in-law's kids (age, 9, 13, and 15 with the latter having played 4th edition before). The best thing for their gaming future was to give them the industry standard experience. So I bit the bullet and downloaded 5th edition Basic, figuring that what with all the conversion resources out there I could lead them to the familiar Citadel of Evil.

They never got there but they had a blast, over two sessions. Below are some of the pro and con features of my experience.

PRO: Character creation is long by old school standards, but the best parts are backgrounds and their associated roleplaying hooks. Backgrounds are great and the implicit idea that splatbooks will focus on them rather than mechanically new classes is genius. Choosing the non-optimal background from the starter set gave two characters some interesting "multiclass" dynamics as an ex-acolyte wizard and an ex-criminal fighter who in action operated more like a combat rogue. It is great to have the mechanical elements pull one way and the roleplaying elements pull another way.

The three starting characters came raring out of creation with reasons to adventure: take back the halfling folk-hero's village while ducking minions of the tyrant; defend the wizard's Zen-like faith against the more military offshoot of the same (literally, a case of Mumon vs. Musashi); find a lost heirloom stolen from the reforming highway robber.

Trinkets are a thing I have used before so they also provided nice hooks, in particular the coincidence of "defend a sacred text" with "diary with seven pages missing" would have been immediate plot fodder in a longer campaign.

Combat, when it came, was very simple and classic-feeling. I ported in some of my "good ideas" like morale rolls, and used Stan Shinn's monster conversion formula for a random stirge encounter and for the climactic battle with the hobgoblins and evil wizard occupying the halfling village. Using this system, 12 hobgoblins and their boss were a very even match for the 3 PCs and handful of halfling refugees, and that only because the kids showed excellent tactical sense, doing a thorough recon, and shooting from high up in trees, by preference at the hobgoblin bowmen. If I had used the 2d8+1 HP, AC 18, +2d6-damage-when-team-fighting ho-gos from the Dragon Queen monster list, the good guys would have been utterly crushed. As it was, two of the PCs and one NPC emerged successfully from the Land of Death Saves.

Knowing how tough monsters actually are in 5th edition, the leveling numbers make a little more sense. The 300 xp needed to get from 1st to 2nd is almost like a 0-level "funnel" now that classic cannon fodder like orcs are best matched to 2nd and 3rd level parties. From there things proceed pretty much as they do in 3rd edition and my own old school rules.

Inspiration I had doubts about, but for these starting roleplayers it was a good, limited and non-intrusive way to have them think about whether their actions in the game reflected their character concept at the end of a session.

Nine-year-old boys have a hard time playing Lawful Good.

CON: My biggest gripe with 5th was the lack of class role differentiation. Spells and special abilities themselves muddle the classes (fighters can self-heal and clerics get a sweet damage spell, for instance), but this doesn't bother me as much. It's more the decision to boil the mechanical class benefits for skills, weapons and equipment down to a proficiency bonus which starts at +2. This means that a rogue isn't much better at lockpicking than a fighter or wizard with a DEX bonus; and in our party, the melee combat beast was the lucky wizard who rolled high stats for STR and DEX as well as INT, meaning he did the best damage with the quarterstaff and, once buffed with Mage Armor, had the highest AC. The Santa-Claus-like handout of ability numbers, "highest of 4d6" plus race, subrace, class and background ability bonuses further tips the balance away from class and toward abilities, so that a +0 bonus was the new -1, and +2 and above was standard.

Being able to cast spells in the face of melee further de-differentiates the classes. We had a two wizard, one fighter party but there was definitely no feeling of "protect the squishy wizards!"

I can see the logic of combat and, as others have said and I found out, it makes for tough experiences. At the same time, the challenge is definitely oriented toward individual fights rather than resource management over a longer haul, due to the healing and spell recovery effects from short and long rests.

But the point is, we had a good time and I feel like I know what I need in order to run this game in a fluid way. I will definitely be getting the Starter Set as a present for the kids ... if I can find a game store that has any in stock, that is ...

Friday, 1 August 2014

GenCon Run: A Mule Called Golgotha

All right. I have taken the step of registering my 52 Pages Old School Basic/3E hybrid game run with GenCon. It will be August 15 (Friday) 10AM-2PM in Embassy Suites, Chancellor 1. If you are already logged into Gencon events manager the link is this un. I want to see some of my blog readers in the crazy mix! Here is the splash page for my GM screen.
The scenario is a delve into Castle of the Mad Archmage's Crypt level with 5th level pre-gens using the 52 Pages system (see downloads, right). The mule is what you will be using to transport the bodies of the blameless dead back to the surface, but the dungeon might have other plans.

I hope I can get some of you fellow bloggers, readers and commenters out of the woodwork for this one!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Indefinite

There is one use of "appears" language, which I mostly panned in a previous post, that actually can be appropriate -- when the character has only an indefinite idea of how to call something they're experiencing.

"In the shadows at the back of the room you see a still figure that appears to be human-shaped" (approach closer and see it's a wooden effigy)

"The vial is full of a fine white grainy powder that looks kind of like salt" (you need to taste it or have alchemy knowledge to find out anything different).

The difficulties in describing this kind of situation are basic to the task of conveying visual information through language. To describe something efficiently you must categorize it. "You see a cylindrical form about two meters high, topped by a sphere, with one long cylinder hanging from each side." That's just a clunky, roundabout, parlor-game way to say "You see a human-shaped figure." But the problem with "human-shaped" is that it forces an interpretation too strongly, while "cylindrical form" doesn't capture the automatic leap to a conclusion that you might experience when you see this feature in silhouette:
For non-visual cues, using approximate metaphors seems fairer. "You hear a sound like a huge sleeping animal snoring" can be revealed as just waves resounding in a grotto. "You see a powder like salt" but when assayed it's actually the alchemists' compound zafronast. Fortunately, visual cues suggest their own method or resolution, transferring the characters' perceptions' to the players' themselves by means of illustrations.

When shown and not told, whether drawn on the spot or prepared ahead of time, the visually indefinite can be a powerful stimulus to conjecture and mystery. Consider the following glyph that recent adventurers in the Castle of the Mad Archmage found daubed on the wall in the south of the second level:

Its meaning was much debated -brains? snakes with wings? Looked sinister enough, anyway. Only when a more detailed amulet was found on the body of a cultist was the intent made clear:

To depict the twin heads and tentacles of the demon lord Demogorgon.

Apart from crude drawings, the visually indefinite can be achieved by holding a mask of random dots printed on an overhead projection over an illustration; else, by holding it up at a distance, as I did in the same adventure when the party glimpsed from afar the notorious fountain of serpents, which is illustrated in the Castle of the Mad Archmage illustrations booklet.

Clues first, then revelation, is a general principle that works wonders when running adventures. A wonder or hazard hinted at before provides a strong guide to play, and makes the final encounter that much more satisfying, than if it comes as a complete surprise.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Air World

And now, pushing forward my other multi-page table project, here is the air-themed table for my 36 x 20 x 20 x 20 modular encounters (that's 288,000 possibilities, or over 10 million if you roll each table separately...)

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Baroque Poisons, Diseases, Stuns and Healing

Incentivized by renewed interest in our baroque spells project of last year I went ahead and completed another page in the very, very occasional series of the 52 Baroque Pages. This time the spinning die had indicated that page 33 of my 52 Pages should be given the "Baroque" treatment, that dealing with poisons, healing hit points, and the like.

Click to enlarge or read below
I decided to split the 52 items four ways, with four thirteen-entry tables that should by no means be interpreted as an attempt to somehow outdo twelve-entry tables. As before, the larger-type #13 entries are my idea of the best of the lot and may be held in reserve to substitute for a lackluster or inappoprriate outcome of the genuine d12. Not all of these, however, need be randomly chosen.

It is also my belief that all the HP recovery activities are much more fun than "taking a short rest" or whatever.

13 Rare Poisons
1.Rosy Tincture: eyes fill with blood, save or blinded, euphoric effect
2.Ingrate’s Milk: poison for baby’s lips that spares it but kills mother
3.Consensifer: paralytic, 1 hr; victims believe they just chose not to move
4.The Null Hypothesis: victim fails to see anything as important, 1 hr
5.Parrhestic Rigor: victim speaks whole truth for 1 day then dies choking
6.Implausible Gauntlets: selective paralysis of hands, feet, 1 day
7.Skuldine: shortens natural lifespan by 2d20 years; long-game poison
8.Gutwrench: too-good antiseptic, kills eubacteria in body, die in d6 days
9.Destiny Venom: kills in 7 days; only gaining 500 xp/level cures it
10.Complix: also envenoms foe’s blade on touch, hence, moral quandary
11.Justichor: medicine that cures most diseases but fatal to malingerers
12.Entheotoxin: makes blood ethereal, only cure is to shift to that plane
13.Legacy Wine: swell, empurple, die; made only from Legacy Wine victim’s last tears; paradox noted

13 Odd Diseases
1.Rust-beast Hyperaemia: if armor rusts into wound, -2 STR, CHA
2.Medusa’s Gallstones: drawback of petrification-save success, -2 CON
3.Displacer Dance: sidestep tic after teleport, -2 DEX until next level up
4.Pharaoh’s Wrack: aftereffect of mummy rot, freezes joints at angles
5.Numismiasis: infection on copper coins, crud webs fingers together
6.Hornflamm: d4-day ague from unicorn noses that neutralizes poison
7.Eargrub: infectious tune, when heard gives -4 INT, WIS for d6 days
8.Sainted Boils: -4 to all abilities, d6 weeks; sucking pus heals d6 HP/day
9.Monty’s Revenge: radiation coma from more magic items than WIS
10.Green Grippe: jealous flu makes host clean freak, spreads post-mortem
11.Esculent Scabs: can peel or bite off for d4 HP damage and 1 meal/day, food smell draws monster attacks
12.Griffon Fur Tick: bite in groin causes overconfidence, -2 to all abilities
13. Litchworm: eats maze in you, 30 days to live, magic-proof; only hope, enlarge self, send in reduced party

13 Nonlethal Damage Effects (at exactly 0 HP)
1.Subdued: if hit was with rope, whip or chain, victim obeys, 3 rounds
2.Intimidated: victim retreats, in preference to attack, for 1 day
3.Disordered: victim gapes in confusion, attacks at random
4.Opossum’d: victim falls to floor, appears dead for d6 minutes
5.Aggravated: victim attacks you at double speed 1 round, collapses
6.Ransomed: victim bargains for life with real or wishful treasure
7.Obligated: if victim is Lawful, unable to aggress against you for life
8.Agog: victim panics, flees by most unorthodox route
9.Near-Death: victim views afterlife in daze, returns in d6 minutes
10.Moonstruck: victim adopts new random persona, amnesic
11.Circle of Life: if victim is animal, it dies, another 3x bigger appears
12.Maledicta: victim throws dying curse, avoided if you spare him
13. Amen!: if hit was with holy symbol, victim adopts your faith

13 Idiosyncratic Hit Point Recovery Activities
1.Charging at an active foe with HD > your level, regain 1 HP/ level
2.Taking an hour-long stroll alone, deep in thought, regain d3 HP
3.Every 3 strong drinks you swig, you restore 1 HP
4.Meditation, 1 hour: roll WIS or under on d20 to recover d3 HP
5.Loudly denying frailty, regain your last 1 HP if 2+ others believe you
6.5% chance /hour asleep of lucid dream; adjust HP by d8-3; can die
7.Sleep in carcass of monster that damaged you for HP = its HD
8.Hot sexy love, 1 hour, exhausted for 2 more, 1 HP for coming last
9.Pity friend with 2x+ more damage than you have HP, recover 1 HP
10.1 hour hot bath with scrubbing buddy heals you like full night sleep
11.Once/week, permanently lose 1 HP to heal 2 HP/level by exertion
12.Character gains 1 HP spending 3 hours musing aloud on a theory of injury and heroism, may provoke NPCs to violence
13. Sir yes Sir! Heal 1 extra HP/day if slapped in the face by a higher level ally

Wednesday, 23 July 2014


Here's how it probably starts.

There's a slip between the input and the output of the Gamemaster-In-The-Middle. The adventure writer communicating to the GM says "This appears to be a worn stone stairway leading down, but really is a sloping passage floored with the sticky illusion-casting tongue of a Deceptive Devourer, the rest of which lurks in wait in room 15 of the next level." The GM then communicates to players,  "You see what appears to be ... an old set of stone steps leading down into the darkness." Or consulting the "appears" synonym book, "seems," "looks like," "apparently is," et al.

Who knows why they do this, but two reasons come to mind. It could just be literal-mindedness, relying on the words in the description to craft a speech to the players. It could also be a reflex of honesty; the inner moral angel balking at saying there "is" a flight of stairs leading down when it just isn't true. Whatever the reason, it becomes immediately clear to the players that using "appears"-isms in this way is a giveaway that something funny is up.

Now, there's still time for you, the GM, to repent of your folly. Realize that your job is only to describe reality as it appears at any given time to the players. A successful deception will appear with the full force of reality;  "is," actually, is fully appropriate.

But in some games I've seen, the GM instead takes the left-hand path, doubling down on "appears"-ism by applying it as a decoy to things that aren't deceptive at all.

"What seem to be some mushrooms are growing from the dung heap." (They're just mushrooms.)
"There are some humanoids approaching. They appear to be orcs." (And they are.)
"A stream of what looks like clear water flows from the left wall to the right." (PSYCH! It's acid, save or take 4d6!!)

In any case, "appears"-ism usually gets left by the wayside when the players enter safe surroundings. Or at least imagine this:
You find what appears to be the same trail leading back to the village through superficially familiar birch and fir trees. After walking a distance that feels similar to the distance you took to get there, you see what may very well indeed be the buildings of the village. You go to a low house that looks very much like your inn. A hot meal for five is seemingly brought out within what feels like minutes by the self-styled innkeeper, who closely resembles the man you remember from this morning. Pewter-look plates apparently are sitting on what looks like a table, with a liquid having the appearance of ale in a ceramic-like pitcher. The "plates" are heaped with putative sausage and ostensible beans ...
This, I think you'll agree, is a Brechtian alienation effect gone too far; it turns the game into an exercise in Plato's Cave or radical philosophical solipsism. Whenever appears-speak is used, it will keep the players vaguely tipped-off and on guard, lending a hallucinatory aspect to the proceedings.

But I'm not sure it's necessary to use such a blunt instrument to get that effect -- shouldn't players naturally be wary in the dungeon? And more to the point, how do you really spring the classic "innkeeper-is-a-werewolf" surprise when you telegraph safe and dangerous areas so obviously?

In conclusion, there can only be one response to an environment described through "appears"-book-isms ...


Monday, 21 July 2014

Checklist For a Middlebrow Media Piece on D&D in 2014


[  ] Receive Wizards of the Coast press release from editor, noting "40th anniversary" and "New Edition."

[  ] Write keystone paragraph on this basis, consulting universal trend story template 44B, "Hip to Be Square."


[  ] Recall either: A: dim memories of your own high school campaign;  B: those weird kids playing in the corner of the student center

[  ] Note nerd stigma

[  ] YET! IT IS NOW HIP TO BE SQUARE: mention two or more trends from list: Peter Jackson films, World of Warcraft, "Game of Thrones", Community 

[  ] Note satanic panic

[  ] Disseminate, without exactly dispelling, one further stigma from list: no girls play; mental instability; steam tunnel high jinks; table play in costume; game revolves around killing and stealing

[  ] Recite cool and successful people who have played, including at least three of: Vin Diesel, Stephen Colbert, Junot Diaz, any big name SF/fantasy author, anyone from D&D With Porn Stars

[  ] Google "history of D&D", follow link to Amazon, read two pages of Playing At The World, glaze over, fill in facts from Wikipedia instead

[  ] Describe play, including funny dice/DM control/player freedom, complex rules/wild imagination, obsession with achievement/no way to win; point out paradoxes if writing high-middlebrow

[  ] Illustrate with dice, figures, nerds, game art in some combination

[  ] Cite/invent benefits of playing including creativity, literacy, numeracy, problem solving, preparation for an increasingly surreal "real" world predicated on escapism and self-invention, favorable comparison to video games

[  ] Find parent teaching their kid to play, or be that parent; makes good "face to the future" closer

Saturday, 19 July 2014


In fiction writing you may have heard of the said-book-ism -- the overly descriptive dialogue synonym that went out of style around the 1970's largely due to its naming and shaming in the Turkey City Lexicon.

Well, if you're writing adventure scenarios you shouldn't be writing dialogue. Really. But there's a parallel in scenario descriptions: let's call it the "is-book-ism."

An idol of a horned demon looms over the room.
An idol of a horned demon dominates the room.
An idol of a horned demon commands the room.
An idol of a horned demon squats in the room.
An idol of a horned demon stands in the room.
An idol of a horned demon occupies the room.
An idol of a horned demon exists in the room.
An idol of a horned demon can be found in the room.

All to avoid the humble verb "to be" with its drabness and its insinuations of the passive voice...

An idol of a horned demon is in the room.

Most of these locutions are called out as cliches in the Fantasy RPG Bingo Card page by Ryan Macklin (refresh several times to get the picture). But is this fair?

Writing RPG scenario text is a unique literary enterprise. It's best compared to writing stage directions in a play, or the art directions in a comic book script. At its best, the genre works this way: a scenario author creates vivid images and interesting contingencies in the mind of the reader, the gamemaster, which she or he then describes to the players, who in turn react, unlocking more images and contingencies from the GM. Let's call this the GM-In-The-Middle Theory.

Trying to cut out the GM-In-The-Middle and communicate directly author-to-player, through boxed read-aloud text, is a widely and justly denounced "cheat" in this procedure. Having ruled that out, how then to write the module text in a way that helps the GM communicate and interact with the players?

Useful principles emerge from the GM-In-The-Middle Theory, if you consider you are writing for the players through their characters. So, don't describe anything the players will never get to know. Write the most apparent things first, then the more subtle things, then things that can only be known by interacting. Don't force the characters' reactions.

A harder question is, how deeply should these descriptions be written? Some have advocated a minimal, list-like format, to try to break the habit of read-aloud; dispensing with the humble "is" in much the same way that the Russian language does. I've never been happy or comfortable with this.

The GM-In-The-Middle approach explains why: to work in this way, the writing must create a fully formed and vivid image in the mind of the GM, an image that he or she envisions and believes in. Reading someone else's list makes me feel like I'm taking inventory in a dollhouse. Reading prose, even prose with archaic or formulaic or dungeon-kitsch elements, can transport the GM so that the job of description becomes natural. Perhaps the prose can furnish a few bright and lapidary phrases that make it through to the players, but the heavy lifting should happen directly through imagery -- just as someone who is fluent in a second language forms their words directly from raw thought rather than passing them through a process of conscious translation.

All this supports the Is-Book against its naysayers. As long as the prose is descriptive and evocative, without compromising either mission with cliched or rote genre-copying (who the hell knows what a gambrel roof is anyway?) it's OK to have pillars march away into darkness, idols loom, portcullises menace, balconies survey, and wardrobes dominate.