Monday 24 December 2012

Mundus Subterraneus

You're going to regret not putting your campaign in historical Europe when you hear about the Mundus Subterraneus of Athanasius Kircher. You may even want to put that book in your campaign regardless - a tome of strange lore containing dizzying hints and tidbits about the world below..

Like the Utriusque Cosmi of Robert Fludd, Kircher's two-volume work from 1664 hurls together a vast array of topics that today sit in very different buildings on campus. He tells us of geometry, physics, geology, astronomy, alchemy, even the reputed magical properties of gems...

Alabaster for stomachache ... Amethyst to resist drunkenness ...
but the emphasis keeps coming back to the "subterranean world" of the title, with how-to on mining and metallurgy, and a section explaining fossils as forms spontaneously generated by the earth - a precursor, perhaps, of Richard Shaver's strange ideas. There is a particularly rich section in the middle where Kircher describes his adventures in the craters of active volcanoes, and then indulges in sober speculation about the networks of fire, airy caves and water spanning the center of the earth, leading eventually to Hell and possibly Purgatory ...

and lays the seeds for generations of hollow-earth fictions and crackpots to come with lengthy passages about the underground ocean that creates the tides, and the creatures that lurk within the underworld - races of subterranean men, giants, demons, and several species of dragon and basilisk.

The possibilities for pseudo-historical adventure campaigning under the assumption that Kircher's ideas were mostly true cannot be underestimated.  Fantasy writers from Verne to Burroughs to Lovecraft have resonated with Kircher's "underdark." Even early on in the D&D universe, the existence of a vast network of tunnels and dwellings deep underground provided a logical continuation for players who had exhausted the depths of their local dungeon. What makes the better endgame, I ask: becoming lord of a castle and hearing the grievances of peasants all day, or equipping for the ultimate delve down rivers of flame and straight through the gates of Hell itself?

Articles and posts on the Mundus:

OU History of Science Collections
Public Domain Review 
Original text, e-book format

Saturday 22 December 2012

For Your Seacrawling Consideration

Is this not the most remarkable, extraordinary adventure location?

* An island owned by some kind of high-level evil rogue/fighter/beastmaster-by-intimidation (Bluto, in the role of Sindbad)
* The average, everyday, boring guard monsters are vultures, war dogs, lions, apes, snakes, and dragons
* The lieutenant-grade guard monsters are an ettin and a roc
* A chest of diamonds, undoubtedly the least of the treasures
* A cave, huge castle, chasm, steep stairway, skull-shaped rock formations, canyon, and active volcano in the vicinity
* Furthermore, the whole shebang sits on the back of a giant whale
* An enchantment renders combat damage into highly implausible ouchie-effects, with several additions to this excellent table.
* Popeye, aided by no useful henchmen to speak of, rolled over the whole place in ten minutes flat.

Monday 17 December 2012


Pick the description that suits you:

1. The potentially greatest as yet unsampled hip-hop beat in existence (according to
2. Play this for your PCs as they enter a small village church during a snowstorm. The organist, the pastor singing in his cracked, off-key voice, around six parishioners kneeling, heads bowed. See how long it takes for them to realize something is wrong ...
3. The potentially greatest easy listening death metal lyrics in existence.
4. The soundtrack for your swinging 60's "Carnaby to Carcosa" Call of Cthulhu session.
5. The potentially ugliest, most acid-warped attempt to copy this picture in existence.

Sunday 16 December 2012

It's A Hard Game

Will Dungeons and Dragons be the next [insert high-impact fantasy franchise here]?

This article in TIME is a better-than-average mass media assessment of D&D's impact on the popular landscape.What I appreciate is its clear analysis of the game's simultaneously pariah and ubiquitous status. D&D has a clear and massive legacy, a definite mandate as a cultish hobby,  but an uncertain future as a mass phenomenon.

I sometimes think the often-repeated cries for these kinds of games to regain their fad status are misguided. The days when people just broke out the D&D and played were days without wide access to more immediately involving interactive games. Let's not forget that tabletop games are hard. They can be hard in an easy way or hard in a hard way, to be exact.

The easy hard way is playing with the tons of rules that some approaches to gaming demand. It's easy because it requires the same cognitive skills as understanding how to play Monopoly or World of Warcraft, just multiplied by a factor of however many. It sometimes seems unnecessary when you can play computer games that take care of the drudgery, but nonetheless we see people drawn to the rule-based approach because they have the brainpower, the obsessiveness, or the ability just to sit back and let other people coach them.

The hard hard way is letting go the rules, finding a gamemaster who is capable of doing more than we did just breaking out the rulebooks in high school, and accepting his or her authority. The "authority" part is the really hard part, especially for adolescents. I know I remember things that way, anyway. In fact, the revival of stripped-down D&D may be a better thing for parents playing with their young kids and friends. The chain of command is already clear there. The kids don't demand much in the way of continuity, emotional depth, grandiose sociopolitical thematizing, and other quintessential adolescent ohmygod-so-serious concerns.

As I've argued before, we could get more players for our games if we made it clear that the DM handles most of the rules, and you just tell us what you're doing and how - but that assumes enough maturity on the part of the players. I don't know, I think we can get enough of those players to come around. It might take a shortcut around the stigma - call it the "survival game," give them modern equipment and problems, only slowly introduce the weird. Or the hell with it, embrace the weird, let your own maturity as a person open eyes and make it okay for them.

Just never let them see the damn gaming forums, okay?

Thursday 13 December 2012

Snow Dog is Victorious!

It's fitting that I should finally have ready the two last encounter tables of my gigantic graphic system - intended to replace the "natural" and "savage" tables in cold regions:

Click to enlarge

Oh yeah, that's a snow dog.

HD: 6 AC: 5/14 AT: d12 MV: 15
Size: 3 Mind: Average Reaction/Morale: +1/+2
These shaggy, fierce but benevolent horse-sized creatures roam wintry wastes and mountain peaks. They are of lawful disposition, associating with kindly druids, abbots and hermits, and will aid well-intentioned travelers. There is a 1 in 3 chance that a Snow Dog will have around its neck a keg with d10 doses of a potion of cure light wounds and protection from cold.

Now comes the hard task of putting all these tables into a presentation format and integrating them with the two outdoor adventure systems I've cooked up: one suitable for pre-stocking areas, and the other for generating encounters on the fly. More on that later.

Wednesday 12 December 2012


Nowadays we take this kind of graphic for granted, as a staple of the more highbrow kind of serious news outlet:

Number of cars in USA vs. rest of world, 1914-28
 The style has a name. It is ISOTYPE, a movement that most people probably don't even know was a movement, let alone its connection with social democratic ideologies in 1930's Germany. If you've ever been told in a statistics class that icons should illustrate quantities by varying in number, not size, you've learned one of the main principles of ISOTYPE design.

The influence, indirectly, on my own 52 Pages approach can't be underestimated.

Lifespan of animals
Lifespan of monsters (under attack from adventurers)
Maybe it's a little incongruous to illustrate rules for adventures of swords and magic using a Modernist graphic language developed in the 1930's. And maybe not - considering it's not the real ancient world or Middle Ages our games are simulating, but fictional products of 20th century fantastic writers. ISOTYPE is industrialization, but also does surprisingly well at accompanying the standardization of pulp literature into rules and monster statistics.

More stuff:

Gerd Arntz collection of ISOTYPE icons.
Links to essays on ISOTYPE.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Gaming the Atrocity

When we play games that imagine conflict, violence and history, a reasonable question to ask is how  sensitive we need to be. I'm thinking about this because of Joe Bloch's recent outraged post about a Kickstarter game of the Salem witch trials, which he considers an offensive treatment of historical genocide against pagans.

Assuming for a moment that everyone agrees (as Joe does) that people have the right to publish whatever games they want, and also that they have the right to express their moral sentiments over said games, where can we draw the line? Are some topics just completely unacceptable in gaming - or can the right approach make a sensitive game about North American chattel slavery, the Holocaust, or genocidal campaigning against Native Americans?

In this question, perspective definitely matters. I remember that my father, who had lived through the Spanish Civil War, been imprisoned by the Fascists and lost many friends in the conflict, had a lot of misgivings about getting me a wargame on the topic when I was a teen, and absolutely refused to play it with me. Having a pagan perspective on a game about witch trials, or a Christian perspective on a game that takes a cynical approach to the politics surrounding the Council of Nicaea, certainly makes one appreciate more the serious issues in play with that historical topic.

Simulation gamers are caught in a catch-22 when the general public regards our doings. On the one hand, we are accused of taking our games too seriously; dressing up in costume to play D&D, learning real magic spells, becoming Walter Mitty-style armchair generals, disappearing into character like Tom Hanks in Mazes & Monsters. On the other hand, people associate a game with fun, lightheartedness and a certain Machiavellian approach to moving pawns around. So when war, murder and other awful topics crop up in a simulation game, the suspicion arises that at best we are callous and insensitive, and at worst we are taking a perverse glee in simulating slaughter and suffering.

These latter misgivings mean that topics that are seen as perfectly acceptable to treat in a novel or a film suddenly become more offensive when proposed in a game. Some examples of controversy:
  • Video games that involve killing members of identifiable groups - Africans, Americans, Arabs, etc.
  • A board wargame that deals with the vicious early warfare between settlers and natives in New England, King Philip's War.
  • The "host a murder" genre of games, which have come under attack from an advocacy group for families of murder victims. (Mysteriously, "Clue" remains untouched in their long list of boycotts.)
It's individual and collective sensibilities that draw this map of offense; the dead in the Spanish Civil War, combatant and civilian, are just as dead as the Natives in King Philip's War, but no Spaniards are protesting the numerous games on that topic. The sad fact is that many intellectual puzzles - military strategies, detective work - come from life-and-death situations, and gain added interest value when tied in to those situations.

It's in this light that I take a larger view of the Salem game. Actually, I feel toward it much the same as I do toward the classic Avalon Hill game of paranoia and betrayal, Kremlin. Both deal with a horrific period of history in which "games" of suspicion and accusation had life-and-death costs. Kremlin in fact takes a lighter tone with its made-up, Boris Badenov-style names; Salem at least goes this far toward a respectful approach:
While the story surrounding the Salem witch trials has become something of a legend, every character in this game is based on a real person whose life was directly touched and in some cases torn apart or taken away by the events surrounding the Salem witch trials.
A solemnity somewhat undercut by the gleeful offering of add-ons and goodies that Kickstarter encourages: colorful Pilgrim tokens, a gallows card, etc. But the overall tone, as with Kremlin, Guillotine, Credo and similar games, is to satirize the morbid absurdity of a system that lets bribery, showmanship and venal accusation influence life-or-death decisions.

I see it as perhaps more advisable to take a serious approach to painful historical topics in a game, in a way that sides unambiguously with the oppressed. Some posters in Joe's thread mentioned the Holocaust game Trains, which I don't like. But this is largely because it recycles received notions about the "banality of evil" that Holocaust scholarship has by now discredited. We now know that the architects and bricklayers of the Holocaust, far from mindless, saw their work as a difficult but morally mandated task, aided by seeing their victims as not really human. The way to simulate the Holocaust from within the minds of its supporters is to set up a scenario, familiar from much Cold-War era science fiction, where the enemy are aliens living among us, superficially sympathetic but actually parasitic. But that's not to discredit the tone or ambition of Trains, or of other efforts, dealing with enslaved Africans in the New World (the comments on that article are also diverse and interesting).

As always, your thoughtful comments and reactions are welcome.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

The Baroque Spell Scroll

As posted on Paolo's Lost Pages, my Baroque Spell / Folio Spell series has come to magnificent life thanks to his layout and bookbinding chops. The titles included, in full ...

The Radiating Cloud of Seven Interfering Bands
The Prelapsarian Pavilion of Mundjogo
The Caryatid Cordon of Cerysse
Hester's Exacting Accountancy
The Appeal to the Seven Worthy Elders
The Contundent Chaos, Without Form and Void
The Multifarious Mandaglore
The Ovo Sub Aquea of Bellorand
The Five Swords of Severity

Now, Paolo is selling a very limited number of copies, but we are also thinking of expanding the book, putting more content on the back of the book/scroll, and so forth.

Perhaps these following sinister spells and items will be involved ... although the risk of publication is great, the watchful Eyes of St. Damien being what they are, and buyers must be most discreet:

Alas! The Passenger
Madame Hildred's Dance
But enough about us. What would you put in an accordion-folded book?

Monday 3 December 2012

Considerations of a Con Game

A little more aftermath from Dragonmeet:

1. The players felt the lethal fury as I made all rolls in the open (except for sensing rolls) and fudged nothing dangerous about the adventure. However, as I had stocked it there was one puzzle-trick involving a massive sliding block intervening between them and the climactic encounter. With less than 30 minutes to go in the session I decided to remove the block trick and show a straight path to the climax. I strongly believe that at a con game, fun takes precedent. Challenge is part of that fun - so no fudging combat - but having a memorable and dangerous climax is also part of that fun.

The trick was not super-dangerous, although the previous lot of players had found it quite anxiety-provoking. Look at area 9 on Dyson's map. Now imagine a 10' stone cube that starts in the north-east niche. It moves at the equivalent of a 30' /round move according to these rules:

* If no living thing is in any square of room 9 it makes its way back to its niche.
* If a living thing is in room 9 it focuses on the northernmost of these, then the westernmost of these if there is a tie. It will try to move immediately to the north of its focus first, stopped only by a wall. If it cannot move any further to the north, it will try to move to the west of its focus. This means, for example, that it will appear to "chase" a character in the top two squares of the room, and will crush anyone who stays there. If he or she darts by and stands by the south door, it will move down but stop just short of crushing.
* Being crushed against a wall is not pleasant; it does 2d6 damage a round with no saving throw.
* If you are particularly cruel, all doors to the room open inwards.
* Behind the cube is a niche with a small purple worm tooth inside, worth 250 $ to the right buyer.

2. I was considering a reward system for the con that would add a competitive element without tedious and gamesmanlike point-scoring. I didn't implement it, but offer it here for your consideration.

Arranged below from lowest to highest, like poker hands, is a series of individual outcome goals for your character. Each player secretly selects a goal before the game begins. After the game, see who achieved their goal. The one(s) who achieved the highest ranking goal win(s).

* Survive, with a share of loot worth at least 250$.
* Survive with a share of loot worth at least 250$ without being incapacitated at the end (having gone to 0 or fewer hp but not dead).
* Gaze on the Heart of the Sunrise (the gem in area 11).
* Survive, having gazed on the Heart of the Sunrise.
* Survive, having gazed on the Heart of the Sunrise without being incapacitated at the end.
* Alive or dead, ensure that the party eventually carries forth the Heart of the Sunrise from the dungeon successfully.
* Survive, as part of a party that carries forth the Heart of the Sunrise from the dungeon successfully.
* Survive without being incapacitated at the end, as part of a party that carries forth the Heart of the Sunrise from the dungeon successfully.
* Be the surviving, non-incapacitated, hero who personally carries forth the Heart from the dungeon!

Having written this all out I now keenly want to put this kind of goal setting in action for the next one-shot I run.

3. For the information of the players: The haul of xp from monster killing is 608, and from sale of treasure brought in on the back of Bill the Mountain Camel, who had fled and was only located after an arduous search (dwarven mail shirts and mirror frame) is 458; total then is 1066. If you are not a spellcaster and have INT or WIS > 12, add 10%, so you get 1173. The gnome and rogue also get 300 xp each for cooperating to get the gem out of the dungeon. It would have been more if you had been able to sell it, but ...

Gnarro the Gnome knew that he had only one hour until the pixie dust ran out, and guessed that the elemental could only track the giant gem if he touched the ground. He put the gem in a waterskin, tied it to the rock and float it in a nearby mountain stream. Unfortunately, the elemental was capable of following the tenuous scent  from the rock, through the rope, through the leather, to the gem.  When Gnarro returned to the scene he found only a large, hemispherical hole in the river bed....

Saturday 1 December 2012

Dragonmeet 2012: Heart of the Sunrise

Dragonmeet is a one-day small gaming con that's held in London around this time each year. Having been there as a player last year, this year I vowed to return as a gamemaster.

The table ended up filled with fans of the blog, including two folks from the L5R days and Paolo of Tsojcanth fame. Paolo brought his 52 Pages gnome, Gnaro, who had last been sighted in Mittellus-Prime and had somehow moved sideways in time to Mittellus-15087, which featured an alternate, rebooted version of the dungeon I had restocked using Dyson Logo's Purple Worm's Gullet map.

Memorable events in this run, entitled Heart of the Sunrise in true prognard fashion, included:

The party tarrying to collect the valuable claws of the hopping piercers not far inside the gullet, and interrupted by the appearance of the wyvern who had been nesting above the dungeon entrance. It wasn't long before the wyvern fell victim to an astounding series of events. It fumbled with its stinger (natural 1, 1/20 chance), went on to roll a fumble of 5 on the lower of 2d6, hit self for 1/2 damage (1/12 chance, increasing the odds to 1/240), lost my 50-50 determination roll of whether it was immune to its own poison (1/480), failed the first save vs. incapacitation I give victims of poison, which it would have made on a d20 8+ (1/1200) and the second save against death (1/3000) - both by one point, rolling a 7! So the wyvern arched around and, being clumsy in such confined quarters, stung itself in the eye and expired on the spot ......

Losing 3 party members to incapacitation and maiming. Tip: When making jokes about two suspicious-looking lizard statues possibly coming to life, interpose someone solid between them and the squishy characters!

An encounter with a mirror hidden in the room under the vertically rotating door under the dwarf youth hostel, which the Mittellus-Prime party had missed. This one will deserve a post of its own - the mirror was a special creation and it played out really well.

The final encounter with the shrine of the titular glowing ruby. The Band of Iron, being campaign characters with something to lose, were content to merely revere the fabulous gem. Not so these one-shot scoundrels! The party rogue used his Oil of Invisibility, lassoed the gem successfully, and then the altar turned into this and all hell broke loose:
What followed was the first time I have used the new chase rules and they worked like a charm. The rogue and gnome, who used pixie dust from a previous campaign to fly,  could double the creature's speed ... but they had to thread the dungeon, while it could move through stone at no penalty. It cut them off and the rogue only barely slipped past with a lucky roll of 2 from a quite-likely-to-hit rockhead. Still, a grim pursuit from a relentless, untiring opponent who seemed an infallible tracker seemed likely, so the rogue threw the gem to the flying gnome ... and the rock-thing stopped in confusion.

How long can our "garden-variety gnome" hero keep the gem aloft and away from the senses of the elemental guardian? That, alas, must await another chapter of his dimension-hopping saga. I want to thank all my excellent players for a truly memorable game with a rousing climax!