Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Tekumel: The P'raka

(The scenario on the home island of my Tekumel party comes here for general use; next, a short report of how they handled it.)

To while away time until Captain Tarshar's arrival, the elders have taken the unusual step of adding to the dwindling food supply by hunting the p'raka, a low-slung six-legged beast like a wild boar, covered in porcupine-like quills. Which happen to be saturated with a flammable oil.

The plan is for the more useful members of the tribe to circle the p'raka grazing ground in the waist-high, dry whipgrass, and for the vocally talented hunter, Kemune, to imitate the attack cry of the flying serpent Ben'gega (known on the continent as Vringalu). Ben'gega is the only thing the p'raka fears more than fire. In panic, at least one beast is expected to bolt across a low ridge, to where the soon-to-be-exiled PCs are tasked with catching and killing it.

The elders figure that if the PCs fail to catch the beast, it is a bad omen and ample pretext to send them off in shame and oblivion. But if the PCs succeed, this is proof that She Who Hides Behind the Sun smiles on them.. Their quest to find the Greater Eye of Shaping the Earth will be praised and feted, and the elders will give the Keeper twenty well-knapped red-flecked obsidian stones to take along, each the size of a fist.

A warm wind blows steadily from the southwest. The party has about an hour to prepare their ground. If the chasers are successful, the p'raka will burst out of the tall grass between a great red sandstone rock and a stand of thorny-leaved kema bushes. In front of it will lie a 200' wide by 400' deep flat expanse of ground mostly covered with dense, short, dry clawgrass.

The savanna is dotted with 5-8' tall um'hehue trees, about one per 20' area, unclimbable by p'raka but easy climbing for people, with boughs of thorn-edged disk-shaped fireproof, glossy, green-black leaves. At the same frequency are bare patches of stony red sand, tangles of twiggy bushes that can be broken off and woven into fencing, and jutting rocks that block a 5' area or 5' side. Somewhere in the area is a patch of a dozen or so oil-melons, whose slimy internal tissues are very flammable if inedible. The PCs should be encouraged to improvise traps and ambushes, under time pressure (figure one person, in 10 minutes, can alter one 10' x 10' area, dig a 3' cube, or do twice that if skill succeeds.)

HELLO
The p'raka (3 HD, AC 13 spines, MV 12 with 3 round bursts of 18, attack tusks d6+1) will run out of the grass on the second round of one of its speed bursts, covering 60', then 180', then slowing to 120', then off the map. It will only stop for fire unless restrained, breaking out of cages or nets on a 5-6 on d6. Even faced with fire it makes a morale check on 2d6: 9+ it runs right through, being set on fire, taking half a d6 damage for 3 rounds and doing a full d6 extra if it overruns someone; 5- it turns around and runs in circles looking for someone to gore; other results it seeks a way around the fire.

Complications on d6, 1: The wind changes direction suddenly and blows blustery, fanning and blowing any fire unpredictably; 2: The p'raka emerges from an unexpected area on the map edge; 3: Two p'raka! 4: If someone is up in a tree, there is a blood snake there, 1 HD, attack 1 damage + poison, AC 12 (speed) 5. Unexpectedly, Kemune's call is echoed from behind you - a real Ben'gega is out there hunting! 6: Roll twice, ignoring further 6'es - except if you roll 5/5, 5/6 or 6/6, the Ben'gega arrives on the scene in d6 rounds...

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Tekumel: The Island

Yesterday a group of four players started my Tekumel campaign. In the great tradition of "barbarians coming to the big city and learning the setting" they created characters, members of an island tribe. They each took party roles.

The Speaker (caller in social situations) was a necromantic shaman with a blow-gun, who contributed that the tribal totem was the Wild Dog. He follows He Who Sets the Night In Order, lord of the moons and planets, ordainer of bad fortune, and casts fortunes by scattering bones in moonlight.

The Rememberer (note taker and mapper) was a not particularly competent hunter. He decreed that the rival groups on the island were the Wild Cat tribe and a group of Hlutrgu frog-men, all separated by mountain ranges and a dormant volcano.

The Keeper of the group's resources was a blind healing shaman ("Can I be blind like Daredevil?" "No, you're just blind"). He determined that what the tribe trades with one Captain Tarshar, boss of that big canoe with wings, is red-flecked volcanic obsidian in return for trinkets, hatchets, cloth and food.  He became blind by staring too long in search of She Who Hides Behind The Sun, ordainer of good fortune.

The Defender, lord of military strategy and the initiative die, was a strong and resilient barbarian warrior whose weapon of choice is a big rock on a rope. To him fell the invention of why the PCs, their zero-level followers and about 20 other tribespeople had to leave the island. Famine, due to increasing heat and decreasing water, was the answer. The other three were among the least necessary members of the tribe. The other twenty also had less desirable qualities -- lazy, complainer, drunk, quarrelsome -- and somehow got the short end of the "random" selection by lots conducted by the Wild Dogs' elder shaman. The Defender took pity on them and decided to accompany them. The tribal legend says that across the sea, in a place where people build mountains and live in them, is the Greater Eye of Shaping the Earth, relic of the dawn age, which can bring prosperity to the most ravaged land.

The elders decide that Captain Tarshar, whose seasonal visit comes any day now, must be convinced to take the surplus tribespeople to this built-mountain-place. The quest of the Eye seems like a good use of these exiles. How big, after all, can the world be?

Next: The Hunt

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Kill Six Billion Demons

The webcomic Kill Six Billion Demons (K6BD) starts absurdly: a bulky masked figure from nowhere crashes Allison's first nervous sexual tryst in her college bedroom, pursued by spiny fiends who decapitate him and bear away her boyfriend of three weeks -- but not before the masked one can implant a regulation-issue Power Macguffin of the Chosen One in Alli's forehead and tumble her across dimensions into a sordid hub-city of the multiverse.

If you haven't read the comic but are intending to, it might be best to stop now  with this review and head on over, if you've got a few hours to spare. The setting that ensues is probably best appreciated through the revelations of the story itself. Spoiler warnings apply more to the details of this world than the "hero's journey" chassis of the plot. If that doesn't faze you, read on.


Gradually, through art dark and luminous, punctuated by enormous teeming panoramas, we see the many orders of angels, devils, humans, demigods and stranger sorts in this universe of 777,777 worlds. Through exquisitely stylized dialogue and accompanying didactic texts, we learn the rules, stories and power relations that our heroine must navigate - at first as a screaming, near-catatonic wreck, but gradually gaining confidence in the role she is to play. Currently the series is finishing up its second book and, if the schematics of the plot tell true, there is a great deal of ground left to cover yet.

The setting calls to mind a Planescape built on Empire of the Petal Throne instead of D&D. A wholly original mythos nonetheless mingles recognizable names and themes from Buddhism (Mahayana and Zen alike) and Near Eastern mythology. Deftly balanced with the cosmic ponderousness of angels, gods and worlds in the balance we find sardonic and self-aware touches. These mainly come from Allison's foothold in the mundane, and from a wisecracking blue-masked imp she acquires, Cio, who fancies herself a writer of fanfiction, Allison her Mary Sue.

Rhombicubooctahedra make the best angels
The comic's creator, "Abaddon" (Patreon), has a strong eye for systems of magic and metaphysics, expressed in vigorous visual metaphors. Cio works magic by way of paper: a business card that marks an unwilling pact onto the recipient, a wall of giant paper dolls, an origami flying mount. The system of binding demons involves a hierarchy of colored masks and human-added names: the fewer names a demon is bound by, the more powerful. Landscapes are more often than not dotted with the towering, frozen or ambulatory, bodies and husks of expired gods and angels. This is a fallen cosmos where God is dead, and lowlife and oppression are everywhere. Perhaps not by coincidence given our heroine's sexual jitters, her first otherworldly destination is a lurid bordello district where desires worse than carnal lust are evidently slaked.

As far as gameable content, an official RPG for the setting is in development. In the meantime, I've worked up an old-school compatible set of spell adaptations for paper magic, adding a few effects not shown in the comic.

Paper beings are AC as unarmored, take double damage from fire and cutting weapons, none from blunt, cold or piercing. Spells are cast with appropriate paper materials and a rhymed couplet containing the numbers five and two.

Caster level
1: Paper servant. Paper doll becomes "seen" servant with 1 HD that acts as unseen servant, can become invisble from a particular vantage by turning sideways.
2: Paper planes: Fold (1 round) and throw a paper plane dart up to 30', never missing, doing d6+1 damage. Can repeat once n a row per caster level above 2.
3: Calling card: Caster always knows the location of a card engraved with his/her name, 1 day/caster level.
4: Paper wall: Dolls multiply and grow forming a whirling wall of 20 2 HD 5-foot paper soldiers up to 10' across or 30' long.
5: Origami mount: has 5 HD, up to 3 human sized persons can ride, flies at 18"
6: 52 card pickup: Sharpens and scatters a pack of cards through a 30' x 30' area, doing 4d6 damage, minus one d6 for every 2 points of armor protection.
7: Paper oracle: Pose a question with up to 4 answers, folded finger oracle over 1 round chooses the most correct one.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

One Page Contest Entry: Gripped in the Hands of Time

I had doubts, this year. Didn't think I was going to do the One Page Dungeon Contest. I had some vague idea about a dungeon with a time travel gimmick, but nothing definite. Besides, all my game design time was going to writing rooms in volume II of my megadungeon. Getting nigh on 50 of them.

Then I came to the part in my map where I had a little suite of 4 rooms, earmarked for something secluded and weird. I cast some randomness on it and one feature - a clock - came up. And I started getting ideas. And pretty soon I realized those ideas would fit on one page, too...

The title describes each of the four rooms in a different way, but it was only an afterthought.My initial impulse was to fill in the blanks in the classic roleplaying madlib: _____ of the ______ ______. Then I saw an adventure that broke that trend and the title came to me.

It's conceived as a module, an abandoned hideout that can be dropped into any setting. The fight is probably going to need high levels and the puzzles are definitely going to need sharp minds. What I like is the way the different elements can interact in an emergent way without having to write it all out with "if-then" prolixity. The diary tells of the time sacrifices which gives you a clue what to do at the bas-relief. Bari-ritu's gifts can help you with the clock lock if you are stuck in there.

The Latin, as translated: "YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT."

Bari-Ritu is played by the Burney Relief.

Enjoy! (link to pdf)

Thursday, 24 March 2016

New Edition of 52 Pages

I haven't been blogging, but I have been running the game every other week, squeezing out text for the ol' megadungeon, and putting the final touches on some revisions to the rules I use. They're now in a position to share at version 2.0, so you can download them from the link on the right, or here.

I'd say that after some five years of playtesting, the new version works pretty darn well, at least for the "basic" levels 1-3. There have been a few issues with higher level powers and spells, and some of the variant classes I want to release, but with more experience (now going on a couple of years, having run two higher-level campaigns plus a number of convention games) I think I can fix a lot of those issues.

Accordingly, things are looking good for releasing an extra "26 pages" soon, focused on character development and advancement for levels 4-6 and new classes. The other 26 would have been campaign development, but I find the campaign structure in 52PP is the thing I least use in actual play. So my ideas about wilderness exploration, city campaigns, etc. are probably best put in a different, system-neutral volume.

Anyway, enjoy!


Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Sci-Fi World

Latest in a highly intermittent series of mix'n'match d20 genre encounter/feature/treasure tables. You got your sci-fi in my fantasy; you got your Barrier Peaks in my Temple of the Frog.


Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Star Wars, Dying Earth, and the Programmed Setting


This contains discussion of Star Wars VII, no major plot spoilers but some general criticism. (Also, it's five weeks in, so see the damn film already.)

Robin Laws' Dying Earth RPG is not just a role-playing game set in Jack Vance's literary world. It also tries to codify the essential elements of that world - game as criticism. According to Laws the elements of a Vancian picaresque tale are: odd customs, crafty swindles, heated protests and presumptuous claims, casual cruelty, weird magic, strange vistas, ruined wonders, exotic food, and foppish apparel. The system also handles such Vancian happenings as being persuaded against your better interest, and winning great wealth only to lose it all ("All is mutability!")

And Episode VII for me was also a recombination of the elements of "Star Wars": you could see the boxes being checked off, with "doomsday machine", "terrifying monsters", "lightsaber duel", "alien cantina" and so on. But really that is nothing new. I remember reading more than one Star Wars novel in the 90's that seemed like a reshake of elements from the first three movies. Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy featured a doomsday device called the Suncrusher. There were monsters, dogfights, lightsaber duels and star lowlife a-plenty.





Also: if you tried to do a love story, a police procedural, a picaresque in the Star Wars universe, it might work, but would it be "Star Wars"? The hesitation in the answer reveals that, like the Dying Earth, Star Wars is a programmed setting. It not only provides character types, artifacts and settings, but dictates the plot and action. Compare this to a setting that has become unprogrammed, like the Wild West. While at one time there might have been a stock plot for the cowboy yarn, over many generations its expansion and reinvention has left room for social commentary, horror, preposterous steampunk action-adventure, etc.

Meanwhile, things might have gone differently if the second Star Wars trilogy's attempt to expand the repertoire with political drama, noir elements and romance had been at all convincing. But it wasn't. George Lucas caused a lot of buzz recently defending that trilogy and how he populated it “with different planets, with different spaceships – you know, to make it new.” It's a shallow view, but one that by omission acknowledges that the other "new" elements were failures, that the only things that stand up in those films are the laser duels, space battles, and spectacle. This is probably what sent J. J. Abrams running back to formula, from the potential of a universe to the safety of a program.

I think there's also a reason for the greater popularity of programmed settings over unprogrammed in roleplaying. The Standard Renfaire-Tolkien Setting, with its cozy taverns, dour dwarves, righteous paladins and hen's egg sized diamonds, is a convenient backdrop against which the slightest departure from custom - be it to invoke a different culture, a different genre or just something different - blazes forth like a star of creativity. And on the players' side, a solid and well-known backdrop gives a basis for their own creativity and improvisation.