Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Dysphoric Rituals of the Paleolithic

Why do so many prehistoric cave paintings have spray-painted outlines of hands with missing fingers?

Study based on Spanish cave art upends previous theories ...
Mundane social science interpretation: "The pain and mutilation create cognitive dissonance which justifies close social bonds"



Better: "SHAMAN FINGER BONE MAGIC APPEALS FOR SUPERNATURAL ASSISTANCE"

Shaman class ability, can amputate a finger given 1 round and a suitable tool.
Drawbacks: Take 1 hp damage per character level, and permanent -1 DEX per lost finger, cumulative, when using that hand (-3 for second finger etc.)
Benefits: Access to one spell as if 5 character levels higher, can cast it even if expended for the day. Must strip and eat the flesh from the bone to cast the spell.

Fingertip option: remove a fingertip for half the DEX penalty (rounded up) and access to a bonus spell at existing caster level.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Baroque Premises for a Game

With the doom of G+, I'm not sure whether to revive this blog or find some other media platform. Blogspot is a difficult place to hold a conversation, and the comment spam has really gotten out of hand in the past few years, with little ability to block it or completely remove deleted comments.

All the same, talking to Paolo a couple weeks back at Dragonmeet somewhat revived my interest in writing out "baroque" versions of selected pages of my 52 Pages ruleset. Previous efforts are here, and the general idea is to flip the concept of 52 Pages -- stripped down, graphics, generic -- into a specific, weird, ornate, textual mode.

So going back to the first page of the 52, here are 26 strange ideas to hack or design a role-playing game around, all of which technically can be played starting from the 52 Pages rules, or any old-school system with character levels and so on. Random generation can be had with a deck of cards (JQK = 11, 12 ,13; add 13 if red). Some are a little, um, derivative of other indie games, but all have had a personal touch added on. Click to enlarge, or read on.



      1.Each character is retelling (playing) a past solo adventure in turn. If any die, all are dead; it is revealed as a conversation among ghosts.
2.Planning a caper, characters play it 3 times with different hazards in their imagination, before the final run takes place in reality.
3.Each adventurer has a perfectionistic death wish as sole motive; GM grades their deaths on originality, virtuosity, and flamboyance.
4.GM takes all treasure from a published adventure, room by room. Players negotiate its division, may fight each other to gain more.
5.Characters inherit a dungeon, have to convince local fiends to move in, and stock enough treasure to attract marks bearing items.
6.One character may be a traitor, winning if all else die. Half secretly know at start they are loyal. The traitor finds out halfway through.
7.The characters are a set of enchanted regalia, without loyalty to their wielders, seeking to pass into the most powerful hands.
8.The world is a tiered mountain, challenges and rewards increasing upwards: at the right level you can pass up to the next tier.
9.The adventurers gain experience not for killing monsters, not for taking treasure, but for sketching and writing about these wonders.
10.You are criminals sentenced to fight through other mutated criminals, compelled to go as low as you can to take your place in the prison. Dreams of leading a revolt are natural but futile.
11.All life inhabits a braid of linear tunnels, arranged by hit dice, with humanity in the “ones and zeroes” and striving to go higher.
12.You have to put treasure back in a tomb guarded by traps and fierce defenders, to honour the terms of your realm’s treaty.
13.You already have all the treasure; use it to cajole and buy an army from the dungeon dwellers, later to fight in a wargame campaign.
14.You are all piloting a single character; GM presents decisions, character’s actions are resolved by vote. Ties mean 1 round indecision.
15.Player 1 runs a single character through a deadly dungeon, death is a “near miss” and the next player takes over. Most XP while playing wins.
16.The dungeon doors open once every 44 years for 22 hours. Gaining treasure and glory means you can marry earlier and richer, and so have more, older, better trained and equipped children for the next run.
17.The town is empty, but monsters that die in the dungeon turn back into the humans they once were. As the town refills, you have more resources, but also more intrigue and treachery to deal with.
18.You awake underground, to fight creatures whose hard parts become tools and weapons, and whose soft parts dissolve into rooms and passages shaped like the creature’s anatomy.
19.Players create a character and a monster, then write two conditions in the adventure for a character to become the monster. Monsters win by killing the party. Each player secretly draws, obeys one condition.
20.Everyone stays 1st level, gains a companion at each level. High level spells are multi-caster rituals. Adjacent companions give +1 hp.
21.“Gaining a level” means you have gathered enough treasure and trauma to retire from adventuring. Roll a new character at the higher level.
22.Characters are raiding a hell to rescue increasingly higher-level versions of themselves, and will become the henchmen of their better selves.
23.The adventure game is a metaphorical mechanism for social conflict in a series of masked balls. Hit points are reputation, melee is repartee, missile combat is gossip, and spells are appeals to higher powers.
24.Wizard magic changes the world forever—zones of sleep, illusions, death zones from fireballs—the world is full of these, and you will leave more.
25: Each of you prepares a short scenario as GM for player on the left. In turn, play through them. Player on the right of the GM prepares a description of what that play session symbolizes. Pass it back to the GM and use it as the basis of a new session. Repeat as needed.
26: Start as tiny people. Each level you gain, the scale, foes and material loot grow. 1: atomic, 2: microbial, 3: microscopic; 4: insect; 5: vole; 6: child; 7: titan; 8: continent strider; 9: planet shaper

Friday, 20 July 2018

Scylla: Henry Justice Ford Monster Manual


Henry Justice Ford Henry Justice Ford Tales Of Troy 1 Flickr Photo

Another contribution for Eric Nieudan's project. This classical creep is to me the best-imagined of all Henry Justice Ford's monsters. He wisely ignores the mildly ridiculous "dogs growing out of waist" description from Hyginus, and focuses on the grasping horror so vividly illustrated here in all stages of crew acquisition. There's no telling how many Victorian and Edwardian children were terrified witless by this "character-building" sight.

Text of this post is released under this license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

SCYLLA

Armour class: as chain
Hit dice: 15 (90 hp); daughters 12
Move: slow crawl, slow swim
Attacks: 6, grab and devour, 2d6 / d6
No. Appearing: 1
Morale: 6
Treasure: 10000, magic; daughters 5000, magic
Alignment: Chaotic

Scylla was a lovely nymph, caught up in the amours of Poseidon and cursed by his jealous wife to bear a monstrous form for all time. She dwells in a cave atop a sea-cliff, commanding the only safe passage through a narrow strait with a whirlpool. It is rumored that she has spawned parthenogenetic daughters, of like form, who have spread out to terrorize wet, dark, and desolate places in the world. 

Scylla's voice is low and harsh, speaking all the tongues of the folk who toil her sea; she barely remembers her sylvan native tongue. She smells like brine and slightly putrid slime, but her movement is sinuous and graceful, almost hypnotic.

The six ponderous heads have brutish women's faces bearded with the legs of the octopus, connected to the barrel-shaped invertebrate body and its vestigial legs by long, snaking necks. Each head attacks to pick up a human-sized foe, ignoring armor, without damage on a hit. The victim thereafter is held fast, breaking free on STR+d20 > 25, and is automatically chewed for 2d6 damage each round in her clutches. Escaping her mouth parts usually means a 10' fall onto the rocky sea below. Two heads can cooperate to pick up a horse-sized meal, if both hit. Enemies that cannot be picked up take d6 damage from her bites instead.

At each 30 points of damage taken she must check morale, and retreats into her cave if this fails. In the cave is treasure that her discerning tentacles have fished over centuries from the wrecks of emptied ships: coins, goods, and the possessions of the slain. She will only listen to parley involving revenge on the sea-god and his spouse, but her daughters may be more amenable to deal-making after a show of strength.

Friday, 6 July 2018

The Uninvited Fairy: Henry Justice Ford Monster Manual

Eric Nieudan over G+ has crowdsourced a most excellent project: to stat up monsters from the lively and terrible illustrations of Henry Justice Ford. Here's my contribution, based on what is certainly one of the weirdest designs given the title.

Text of this post is released under this license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

CARCINOS

Armour class: as plate
Hit dice: 4
Move: fast walk, slow swim
Attacks: Two claws, 2-12 each
No. Appearing: 1, possibly unique
Morale: 8
Treasure: 2000, magic
Alignment: Chaotic

Polite elfin society has named this fey pariah, for the aspect it has taken on: a massive crab, shell the color of the deepest purple bruises, that can flex its legs eight feet tall. It smells of deep loam and perpetually trails wisps of fog, clacking as it goes. It can see all spectra of energy and speaks in a buzzing, down-pitched tone.

The Carcinos Fairy haunts and lurks in dark places at the edge of sylvan idylls: the back of the grotto, the mine in the glade, the sinkhole in the swan-marsh.  Profoundly narcissistic, it would never change an iota to fit in, preferring to play aggrieved victim. It haggles with humans to the detriment of the conventional fey, hates elves, and often gathers dark and embittered minions to its cause, impressing them with magic. The Carcinos is shameless in soliciting praise for its beauty (one must be creative to comply) and ruthless in punishing any equivocation on the subject.

The main strength of the Carcinos is its magic. At will it can use: suggestion, invisibility, dancing lights, faerie fire, water breathing, stinking cloud, and fog cloud. Once a day it can use each of: bestow curse, polymorph other, charm monster, wall of ice. It takes half damage from cold and weapons, and resists all magic (even if no save) on a d20 roll higher than the caster's level/HD. Cold iron weapons do double damage to it.

If the Carcinos is killed, it slowly turns into a tall, beautiful faerie warrior clad in crumbling chitinous armour.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Amazon Mutual: Day-Glo Ideas from the Typewriter Era

Digital cameras can't really handle Day-Glo. I tried.

The year: 1982.
The text: electric typewriter and Letraset titles.
The cover: fluorescent orange.
The art: strictly amateur.


"Amazon Mutual Wants You!" Volume One, from Dragon Tree Press, is the most interesting and creative of my three old-school pickups (previously, previously).

 High concepts.

The concept driving this anthology is very 1982. It's that era in which the first flush of playing D&D straight had faded out, and the kind of self-aware narratives seen in Dave Trampier's "Wormy" comic were taking hold. So, the party are meta-adventurers, having been hired by a guild (the titular Amazon Mutual) to carry out the corpse retrieval clause on other adventurers' insurance policies. The four adventures are four such missions, each with a different author and a markedly different style.

Some of the guild rules are typical AD&D fun-crusher magical fiats. Retrieval teams are geased ("absolutely no save!") not to steal the victims' possessions. Body bags of holding eliminate the problem of lugging corpses back. There are half a dozen better ways to approach the first problem, ways that open the slim possibility of hoodwinking the guild -- Amazon keeps a list of possessions and recovery teams are held liable for missing stuff; an annoying familiar chaperones the rescue effort; and so on. The body bags solve a problem that's nonexistent if the party eliminates all opposition before retrieving the corpses, and kill an element of challenge that should hang over the adventure if they don't.

The book's approach to what we would now call challenge ratings, though, is one of the dead-end gems of the Typewriter Era, up there with the Midkemia attack matrix.
  • First off, each adventure has a manifest of all the experience points available in the form of monsters. (It would be most helpful if treasure was listed, too, though, but the need for a GM to manage advancement rate is one of the most underrated things in level-based gaming.)
  • This manifest also includes suggested experience awards for outwitting monsters, dealing with traps, and finding clues and other plot goals. Given the slow advancement pace of by-the-book AD&D this is absolutely key.
  • There's also a section where it's explicitly recognized that the character power level appropriate for each adventure depends on what approach the players and DM take. So, one adventure is suitable for level 7-9 if the DM plays it as a standard fighting room-crawl, 14-18 (!) if the DM treats it as an organized fortress where all the denizens can be warned in a short time, or much lower levels if the players choose to take on the adventure with sneaking, diplomacy, or infiltration.
Temple of the Four Gods. The first adventure takes you to retrieve four adventurer bodies from a temple with a prosaic layout, short on monsters and long on tricks and traps. There are a few clues explaining how the temple went over from the four gods to the service of Loki, but overall this is a funhouse mini-dungeon with a few random gleams of dark humor.  Two corpses can be had almost immediately without any fight, one comes after a four-goblin battle, and it's only the last body that forces the players past a meaningful number of tricks and traps. Would run: 3/10.

Stronghold of the Mer-Witch. An underwater cave mission to retrieve two adventurers. One is dead and can be found almost immediately after a nasty fight with a gigantic eel. The other is alive but a captive of the mer-witch deeper in, who commands a small army of mer-orcs and (not very tough) sea trolls, and can throw three death spells a day among other powers. A coral golem and an interestingly furnished underwater torture chamber liven up the otherwise unremarkable, "storehouse, barracks, kitchen" design. Would run: 6/10.

Mission to Danger. The gonzo spirit of early-days roleplaying lives here. The person to be rescued, captive but not yet dead, is a "Hobbit Fighter-Techno" with a pistol, a switchblade, and a deadman switch, for he has mined the dark elves' dungeon fortress to blow sky-high! The DM is asked to play out the ticking clock in four hours of real time. Some nice situations can happen: meeting an illusionist cat who might help with infiltration, a possible fight between an enemy red dragon and a captured rainbow dragon, finding out the hobbit is an ornery and contrary ally, and a treasure hoard that turns into a river of molten gold if the explosives blow. Would run: 8/10.

Grimethorp's Manor. This adventure plays around with the Amazon Mutual premise. The party has to retrieve a peacefully deceased retired adventurer from his mansion, following the letter of his policy, but his ghost doesn't want his body moved. It's a clever concept but the execution is lacking. Until the party finds the body, they will be walking through the mansion rooms with nothing interesting to do. When they try to take the body out, the ghost starts interfering, casting nuisance spells and animating the house's furnishings to attack, just to frighten and annoy but not cause harm. That's also not going to work. You frighten D&D players by taking huge chunks of hit points, and making them roll save-or-die, not by having a rug say "boooo".  Would not run as is, and the adventure needs a lot of editing to work; I'd start by having bandit squatters and other random ruin pests in the mansion to give the adventure a real first act, make the ghost's attacks really dangerous, and on top of that have the rest of the bandits coming home from a raid just as the party is making to leave.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Awesome Pain in the Ass That Was DragonQuest

Continuing my trio of bargain-bin rescues from Glasgow (actually a gift from Paolo, in lieu of buying an adventure from the system) I present to you DragonQuest, 2nd edition!

Why does this RPG system set my teeth on edge? My nostalgia should be all for SPI and the days of punching out wargame counters, all for Deathmaze and Citadel of Blood and War of the Ring and Sword and Sorcery. But good boardgaming chops do not guarantee a good roleplaying game.

Let's judge a book by its cover. Sorry guys, RPG players are not just dreaming of being Conan. D&D art got that right more often than not. They are in a fantasy-hero world, but team players; just like they're in a horror world, but not doomed, and in a science fantasy world, but stone cold medieval. The Frazetta muscleman hoisting up the results of his DragonQuest like a trophy bass is someone else's idea of "sword and sorcery".

The writing style of the game is a 180 degree reaction against the fast, loose but evocative D&D writing of the time. No gaps and confusing terminology here! DQ is buckled and strapped into the case law structure of an SPI wargame's rules (see 3.7.5.1 and apply the Rules Writing Procedure). If the GM has leeway, we'll tell you exactly where that leeway is. It's meant to be clear, but it's mechanizing and alienating on the page. The wargame influence also shows in the tight regulation of combat on a hex grid.

Maybe case-law would work if the mechanics were more elegant, as in Metagaming's contemporary offering The Fantasy Trip. But they're standard Rolemaster-type fare, a percentile skill system with "RPG 2.0" features like separate fatigue and physical damage, damage-reducing armor, critical hits, background packages, custom advancement ... Determining target numbers might have you multiplying 39 by 2.5. Damage involves frequent table lookups to see if a crit and physical damage happen. God forbid you should have a d6 laying around the house, here, roll one of your d10's and take half for a d5 instead. And roll four of those d5s to determine your character's stats.

What's a Satanic panic?
But it's funny how often interesting magic systems come attached to clunky base mechanics, while elegant systems like TFT or RuneQuest have difficult or prosaic approaches to magic. Certainly, something was possessing SPI around the turn of the 80's. They had a boardgame about the demons from the Lesser Key of Solomon, and worked some of those names into their Citadel of Blood adventure game. And yes, there's a whole school of DQ demon summoning that ramps up to 16 pages of fully powered Goetic infernal royalty. That menu is clearly where all the love lies, and the other magic schools suffer collectively by comparison. Some are solid, some near-unplayable like the Water Magic school with its Aquaman-style restriction.

By the way, there is a lot of cribbing from D&D, especially in the monster list. And in the kind of rules that compel game balance. Wizards can't cast near cold iron or while being distracted by damage. Player characters who poison their weapons might nick themselves. This points at the heart of the problem, that Dragonquest isn't built around a compelling setting (implicitly, as in D&D, or explicitly, as in Runequest). So much of it is generic that the special stuff fails to stick.

For example, instead of alignment, your characters get a quasi-astrological Aspect which gives them bonuses and penalties for very short periods of the day or year, or around a birth or death. Sounds cool, but it doesn't really resonate with any other social or magical structure, mostly boiling down to an optimum time and place to do housebound skill tests. Only the death aspect has any impact on the typical adventurer, with a +10% bonus just after a mammal dies near you.

At least the 2nd edition book concludes creditably, with a tight little sample adventure in a bandit oasis. It maybe shows, though, that DQ doesn't really know what kind of fantasy game it is. The journey to the camp is described last of all, oh yeah, you might encounter a sand golem. The real detail is put into the characters at the camp, their secrets and intrigues. It's not really necessary that one is a halfling and another is a hobgoblin. The magic, too, is subtle, pulp-story stuff. There are other consequences of aping the pulp era (the camp is run by one "Alla Akabar," and roles for NPC women comprise jealous wife and sex victim). Perhaps the game is more suited for would-be Conans after all?

Saturday, 28 April 2018

One Page Dungeon 2018: Beneath the Nameless Towers of the Kremlin

This year I thought I would do something gonzo and topical about all the rumors, disinformation, and horrible truths surrounding the Russia of the Czars, the Soviets, and Putin. There is a wealth of material, some of it verified, some of it shadowy, some of it obvious bullshit, and some of it (like Mushroom Lenin) a purposeful hoax. Any adventurers from any world using time or dimensional travel might find themselves summoned to the mad science labs under Moscow, embroiled in a Kremlinological intrigue.



Linked pdf version with sources for all the history and mythology.