Friday, 13 April 2018

Wheels within wheels: clockworkers and scrap mechanics of the Wicked City

Compared to its state a century ago, when it stood at the zenith of its prosperity, the Wicked City is a shadow of its former glory. Its streets lie in ruins. Its population has fallen dramatically. Its farmlands are turning to desert. Its state religion has become a hollow farce. But one segment of the city's economy which has not declined are its clockworking industries: and in this area, at least, the city retains its world-leading status, just as surely as it did before it lost its name.

Before the rise of the Wicked King, the city became preeminent in clockworking because its coal mines made it cheap to build and power metal automata, and because its position at the hub of the Great Road made it easy for its merchant dynasties to attract the most talented mechanics from both the eastern and western empires, sure that they would be able to find markets for their wares. Since then, the city has retained its edge largely because of the enthusiasm with which its government has invested in clockwork technology, ensuring that the clockworking guilds have never lacked for patronage. The government's willingness to tolerate the excesses of the Steel Aspirants has made the city a major centre for the cult of the Cogwheel Sage, and the low price of coal means that it still has a substantial community of Brass Folk: after all, they can 'eat' there more cheaply than they can anywhere else.

Construct Token by on @DeviantArt

The innumerable automata upon which the city's economy depends are manufactured partly by the Brass Folk, and partly by the old clockworking guilds, many of whose constituent families pride themselves upon having been clockworkers for three or four generations. Their guildsmen are a fussy and elitist bunch, much preoccupied with family trees and certificates of mastery, and deeply disdainful of interlopers and outsiders. It is their workshops which produce the heavy, ornate, slightly oppressive-looking clockwork machinery for which the Wicked City is famous the world over: it is their sons and daughters who maintain the gyrocopters of the Air Corps, and serve as mechanics in the King's Own Armoured Brigade. Their business practises are slow and obfuscatory, and the Ministry of Technology would like to dispense with them entirely; but no matter how much the minister might dream of uniformity and standardisation, clockworking remains iredeemably artisanal in nature. It is precise, fiddly, and technically demanding work, of a kind that favours obsessives and virtuosos: every workshop has its own house style, and every master teaches their own distinctive tricks and methods to their apprentices. Attempts by the Ministry to train whole regiments of slave-mechanics to a uniform standard have met with very limited success.

In most parts of the world, the expensive tools, materials, and training required to create clockwork automata ensures the craft is practised only by licensed masters and their apprentices: but modern clockworking has been practised in the Wicked City for over a century, now, on a scale which has made the maintenance of true monopolies impossible. Tools get stolen. Supposedly 'secret' methods get taught to curious friends or lovers. Mistreated apprentices run away and take their knowledge with them. Knowledge-hungry slum-kids catch stray clockwork songbirds in nets, and spend endless hours painstakingly taking them apart to see what makes them tick. As a result, alongside its official clockworking schools, the Wicked City has become home to a vigorous 'street clockwork' tradition characterised by ingenious use of improvised materials. For every 'legitimate' clockworker family operating out of a licensed workshop, there is at least one unlicensed scrap mechanic working in a hidden basement, cobbling together devices out of whatever salvaged fragments come to hand: and the asymmetrical kitbashed products of their labours can be often be glimpsed scurrying over the rooftops of the Wicked City, catching the evening sunlight with a dull glint of tarnished brass.

I found this on: I've become a fan of steampunk that I actually know what it is :)

The unofficial symbol of the scrap mechanics is the cogworm. Little more than an adjustable tube of gears with a crank at each end, the cogworm allows power to be leeched from one machine to another: the user simply attaches the worm to moving machinery in such a way that the machinery turn the crank at one end of the tube, and then attaches the crank at the other end to the machine which requires winding, thus turning its key and winding its mainspring. Most scrap mechanics have, by dint of long practise, become extraordinarily dexterous in the use of cogworms: leave them alone with a large automaton for even a couple of minutes and it will end up with cogworms dangling off every part of it, like a horse that's just emerged from a leech-infested bog, each of them feeding power to some whirring contraption hanging from the other end. Many street automata actually incorporate cogworms into their bodies, which emerge like lashing metal tentacles to opportunistically siphon energy from any exposed machinery that may happen to be nearby. When draining power from other people's machines isn't an option, the scrap mechanics use homemade windmills or waterwheels, instead. Actually paying for coal is a last resort.

The scrap mechanics have found all kinds of niches for themselves within the city's grey economy, cobbling together everything from primitive washing machines for laundresses to clockwork messenger birds for gangsters. They employ gangs of street kids to gather scrap metal for them from the city's dumps, and make occasional excursions out into the countryside to loot rusted machinery from the city's old pumping stations - a practise which often brings them into conflict with the pig-men who now infest the abandoned irrigation tunnels. They are fiercely proud of their inventiveness and originality, and delight in competition, constantly facing off against one another in various contests of clockworking skill - everything from simple races in which the fastest automaton wins, to tournaments between chess-playing clockwork robots, to grand events in which whole teams of clockworkers will labour for months to assemble clockwork war machines which are then pitted against one another in battle. The city's gangsters often come to bet on these events, and the drink and drugs flow freely - a quality which has given them a near-legendary reputation among the apprentices of the legitimate clockworkers, many of whom secretly dream of sneaking away from their masters and becoming champion scrap mechanics in the slums, instead. In most cases these dreams lead them no further than occasionally creeping out to spend a night illicitly watching a clockwork street race, but every veteran guildsman can tell stories of promising but unruly apprentices who sneaked out one night and simply never returned, choosing lives of precarious outlaw glamour over the security of wealth and status that might otherwise have been theirs.

I see my mind as a well oiled machine made up of gears and cogs moving in perfect sync. Every once and a while one or two of the gears slip out of place and i do something stupid or make a bad judgment. But God is my tinker he puts it back where it was and oils it up good as new. Not to say Im a psycho lol

To find out what the local clockworker's guild is up to, roll 1d10:
  1. Working on a big order of clockwork machinery for the mines or irrigation works.
  2. Working on a big order of clockwork wargear for the military.
  3. Working on a big order of yagas for one of the merchant houses.
  4. Working on a small but highly-demanding order of clockwork toys and animals for one of the Cobweb families.
  5. Manufacturing clockwork luxuries (pocket watches, wind-up songbirds, etc) for export by the merchant houses. 
  6. Manufacturing a unit of clockwork soldiers for export to some far-off warzone.
  7. Carrying out arcane debates about their guild's rules, degrees, traditions, and regulations.
  8. Brainstorming how to best edit their family trees to make their collective pedigree look more impressive without the forgery being spotted by their rivals.
  9. Moaning about how no-one has any respect for real tradition and craftsmanship any more, and how apprentices these days would all rather sneak off to watch pit fights between robot gladiators than put in a good, honest day's labour polishing their master's brasswork.
  10. Planning elaborate security measures to prevent power from being siphoned from their machines by the cogworms of those damn scrap mechanics.
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To find out what the local scrap mechanics are up to, roll 1d10:
  1. Carrying out small-scale clockworking jobs for local businesses and residents, using scavenged tools and materials. 
  2. Carrying out a large-scale clockworking job for a merchant house that's too cheap (or in too much of a hurry) to get one of the legitimate clockworker's guilds to do it instead.
  3. Building clockwork traps, alarm systems, and kitbashed guardian automata to sell to local businesses. (50% chance these have built-in flaws that the scrap mechanics will subsequently sell to a local gang.)
  4. Building clockwork traps for a local gang, to help them fortify a section of the streets to which they have laid claim.
  5. Planning an expedition out into the farmlands to loot an abandoned pumping station for parts. Everyone is discussing what kind of clockwork devices they should bring with them to deal with the pig-men they are likely to find there, and how best to avoid the Man With Stones For Eyes on their way out of the city.
  6. Discussing the pros and cons of throwing in their lot with the Steel Aspirants, and whether or not the unquestionable coolness of having guns for arms is really worth having to take orders from a disembodied brain inside a battle tank.
  7. Building automata for an upcoming street race. (Roll 1d4 to determine type: 1 = automata with feet, 2 = automata with wheels, 3 = automata with wings, 4 = automata with human drivers.) All the competitors are hidden away in their respective workshops, tinkering away on their latest secret projects, each convinced that this time they've got a great idea which is certain to win the race. Bets are being taken, and the local gangsters will pay for inside information about who's building what.
  8. Practising for a nocturnal wingride (an aerial race in which all competitors use clockwork wings). Most competitors build their own wings, less because it's an actual rule than because otherwise pilot and mechanic just blame each other every time anything goes wrong. The tendency of the Wicked City's streets to rearrange themselves by night makes the sport a dangerous one, and the most successful wingriders are fearless daredevils adored by the children of the streets.  
  9. Working on clockwork brains for their chess-automata, in preparation for an upcoming tournament. Advice from human chessmasters is suddenly in high demand. The automata themselves can look like anything provided they wear a metal fez, and fanciful designs abound: chess-playing dragons, insects, cats, etc. Absolutely no hidden dwarves permitted. 
  10. Gathered in teams, building freakish robot gladiators for an upcoming arena fight. There are only a few of these events each year, and they are widely attended by locals, gangsters, and even members of the Cobweb Families. As the event approaches, excitement reaches fever pitch, and rival teams becoming increasingly willing to pay over the odds for that one weapon or component which might allow them to secure a surprise victory...
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(EDIT: The Scrap Mechanics and the Clockworker Guilds have now been added to my post on liberating the Wicked City.)

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The value of raggedness

Despite the tribalism of their respective fans, OSR games and modern storygames have a lot in common. They both arose as responses to the same problem: the bloated, railroaded, rules-heavy, metaplot-infested RPGs of the later 1990s and early 2000s, which promised such vistas of wonder through their rules and settings, but delivered such disappointing experiences in actual play. As a result, they share an emphasis on clawing back genuine agency for their players, and on ensuring that 'story' is something that gets generated live at the table, instead of being written down in advance by some frustrated novelist turned GM. But they approach this objective in different ways: and while most storygames aim to simulate fictional genres, OSR games aim to simulate fictional worlds.

For as long as D&D has existed, there have always been players who have pushed back against its world-simulating tendencies. 'A game of D&D is supposed to be like a fantasy epic, right?', they say. 'So how come my heroic paladin can get killed by a stray arrow fired by some random goblin? Isn't it awfully anti-climactic to get all the way down to the big boss and then lose because of some bad dice rolls? And why do the rules punish me for fighting fair and charging bravely into battle, even though that's exactly the kind of thing that epic fantasy heroes do all the time?' In the early days, such players either played D&D with lots of house rules and fudged dice rolls, or else wrote their own fantasy heartbreakers which did a better job of reflecting how they felt the game 'should' work. These days, many have gravitated instead to games which are built from the ground up on the premise of emulating genres rather than settings: games in which the fact that heroic protagonists will never be killed by nameless henchmen, and that epic confrontations will always ultimately save the day (although often not without cost), are actually written into the rules.

There's a lot of clever design floating around in contemporary storygames. The crude ones simply mandate that this is the way things will work; the more subtle ones provide notional freedom, but weight their rules in such a way that, over time, genre-appropriate outcomes become increasingly unavoidable. If you want a game in which a heist is more-or-less guaranteed to play out like an actual heist movie, or one in which a magical quest is almost certain to play out like a fantasy epic, or whatever, then they're great. Even the later editions of D&D work towards this to some extent by giving PCs 'death saves', 'healing surges', and so on, thus reducing the likelihood of 'undramatic' events such as major characters dying at the hands of random minions. Fans of such games sometimes express confusion as to why anyone would prefer to use systems, such as B/X D&D, which do so little to guarantee genre-appropriate story outcomes. Why not use a game which ensures that every campaign will actually resemble the kind of fantasy narratives on which D&D is notionally based?

Now, there are a bunch of potential answers to this question. The three most common ones are probably a preference for games which test the skill of the players rather than those of the characters, an interest in exploring settings as if they were just as real as the PCs rather than mere backdrops for their adventures, and a commitment to truly open and emergent play within which any attempt to determine the direction of a story in advance would be viewed as tantamount to cheating. I have a lot of sympathy for all three, but recently I've been wondering whether the 'raggedness' of OSR play - by which I mean the way that it often maps very imperfectly onto the conventions of the genres it supposedly models - might also be potentially valuable in and of itself.

A genre is, by necessity, a system of simplifications. There's only so many pages in a book, only so many minutes in a movie, so foregrounding one kind of material inevitably means leaving out others: and one of the key reasons for using the trappings of genre is to advertise to potential audiences which kinds of content are likely to get foregrounded, and which ones are likely to get left out. But the constraints of RPGs are very different: an RPG campaign can easily run for dozens or hundreds of hours, and while films and genre novels usually have to hold themselves to a very tight narrative schedule, RPGs can (and often have to) incorporate substantial ebbs and flows as people arrive, leave, get tired, get inspired, get bored of things, have new ideas, and so on. If you view the objective of RPGs as genre emulation, then you probably view all that as a problem to be managed, in the name of keeping the game on-track and in-genre: this is one reason why storygames often lend themselves to very short campaigns. But if you see the objective as world-emulation, then you can embrace them. You can take advantage of the fact that RPGs make it not just possible but easy to tell the kind of weird, rich, ragged, unconventional stories that are normally found only in the realms of self-consciously experimental fiction.

An OSR D&D game will sometimes be one in which brave heroes slay wicked monsters in dark places and retrieve fantastical treasures. But it will often also be one in which whole expeditions grind to a halt because no-one remembered to bring enough iron spikes, or where the fighter ends up spending the whole evening gambling with bored watchmen in the local pub because he's a few coins short of being able to afford a new suit of armour, or where the Dark Lord of Disaster can leap out of his tomb, trip over a rope trap left by the party, and promptly fall to his doom down a bottomless pit. I love that. It's real. It's human. It's kind of sad and kind of funny and quite a lot like real life. It's less about 'realism' in the sense of modelling physics or biology, and more about just conveying a sense that the world is strange and complicated and unpredictable and often slightly absurd. I can never really believe in Mighty Heroes Slaying Evil, but I can totally believe in a wicked high priest getting randomly crushed to death after a couple of wily villagers dropped a boat on him.

Now, maybe the limitless complexity of human life is the last thing you want to model when you sit down for an RPG session. Maybe, for you, the whole point is to create a shared fictional universe in which the genre-appropriate thing always happens at the genre-appropriate time, precisely because it almost never happens that way in reality. But what I hope I've articulated here is that it's entirely possible to view the free-flowing randomness of the average RPG session, and the 'raggedness' of the narrative outcomes generated by 'old-school' RPG systems, as a feature rather than as a bug. If I just want to experience a story about epic fantasy heroics, I can watch a film, or read a novel, or play a computer game, or even play one of those D&D board games I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. But stories in which the vivid strangeness of fantasy is used to highlight the oddness and resilience of ordinary life, rather than just to heighten yet another operatic grand narrative, are very much rarer: and for those purposes, for me at least, there's still nothing quite like OSR D&D.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Dungeoneering fast and slow: some thoughts based on D&D board games

Thanks to the magic of ebay, I recently acquired copies of two D&D-themed board games at knock-down prices. The first one was the Dungeons and Dragons board game, published by Parker in 2003. The second was the Legend of Drizzt board game, published by WOTC in 2011. They share the same basic concept: each models a band of heroes exploring a dungeon, and each uses the same kind of board game technologies to accomplish this, including miniatures, map tiles, and treasure cards. But their conceptions of what the dungeon is, and how the heroes interact with it, are very different.

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The 2003 Dungeons and Dragons board game.

In the 2003 game, the dungeon is essentially conceptualised as a series of discrete challenges. Each room contains a determinate number of threats, some of which - the nature and locations of the monsters - are revealed to the PCs, while others - the nature and locations of the traps - are hidden from them. There's no time limit, and no incentive to deal with more than one room at a time, but the PCs have a strictly limited amount of resources (hit points, magic points, items) with which to defeat the dungeon as a whole. A a result, optimal play consists of  slowly and methodically clearing the dungeon, room by room, until the objective is attained.

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The 2011 Legend of Drizzt board game.

In the 2011 game, the dungeon is the kind of free-flowing, danger-filled environment you might expect to see in the climactic scenes of an action movie. Rather than a series of discrete rooms, each area flows into the next. Threats spawn continuously: everything is constantly exploding, the heroes are always under attack, and the dungeon is constantly damaging the players just for being inside it. The players have a lot more tools than their 2003 equivalents for controlling combat - how much damage they deal, how much damage they take, how often they hit, etc - but far fewer options for controlling their environment: traps just happen rather than being determinate obstacles that can be located and disarmed, and monsters surge abstractly from one zone to the next rather than having to move through specific squares that the players can target or block. Optimal play consists of racing through this murderously dangerous environment as quickly as possible, trying to reach your objective before it kills you.

At first, I instinctively associated these two dungeoneering styles with 'old-school' and 'new-school' D&D, respectively. The 2003 game has the very OSR-ish idea of the dungeon as a logical and logistical puzzle - it even has encumbrance rules! - while the 2011 game, with its focus on tactics rather than strategy and its emphasis on cinematic action, reminded me of more recent editions. But in other ways, the 2011 game actually reminds me more than the 2003 one of the old-school idea of the dungeon as a 'mythic underworld', innately hostile to human life, in which everything wants to hurt you and the pain just keeps coming until you leave or die. It was the new-school editions, after all, which did away with the emphasis on timekeeping and wandering monsters, thus permitting PCs to explore dungeons at their own pace rather than always keeping one eye on the clock.

OSR bloggers often write about taking very measured, systematic approach to dungeoneering: explore everything, search everywhere, accumulate knowledge and use it to deduce the positions of traps, treasures and secret doors, master the environment and manipulate it to your advantage, and so on. It's a natural response to the relative fragility of OSR PCs: you can't just outfight the monsters, so you have to out-think them instead, and that's hard to do if the dungeon doesn't let you gather enough information to base your plans upon. But back when I used to run D&D 3.5 games, I'd sometimes run dungeons in the opposite way, as a kind of stream-of-consciousness nightmare in which the threats never stopped coming and the dungeon was there to be sprinted through rather than meticulously explored. The fact that D&D 3.5 PCs were more resilient than the OSR equivalents made it easier, of course. But it did make me wonder whether the same effects could be achieved within a more planning-and-logistics-focused OSR context, as well...

Imagine a dungeon environment so hostile - so hot, so cold, so poisonous, so infested with aggressive creatures, whatever - that just being inside it would rapidly wear you down. Descending into it would be less like spelunking than pearl-diving, with each dungeon-delving expedition lasting not hours but minutes: a frantic dash into the darkness and then back to the light before the environment destroys you, hopefully with a new fragment of knowledge or progress to show for it. The objective for a delve might be no more than 'see what's at the end of the south corridor', or 'rig up a rope bridge across the chasm to the north', and success would be a matter of gradually linking together the meagre gains from each of these dashes into a strategy for actually accomplishing whatever it was you came there for. Obviously, such a dungeon (or dungeon sub-area) would have to be pretty small, and the PCs would need to have a very good reason for going into somewhere so horrible in the first place. But, in a very literal way, it might make for a entertaining change of pace, pushing PCs to consider a different set of logistics to the ones they normally have to manage. How many of their standard adventuring procedures will need rethinking when proceeding at normal dungeoneering speeds would kill them all within an hour?

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'I really wish we'd come down here in more sensible clothes!'
Here are six possible 'hazard zones' that might lend themselves to this kind of 'fast dungeoneering':
  1. There is no floor. The whole area is an abyss, and awful bat-winged things surge up from below at irregular intervals. Each expedition would aim to attach a few more hooks, ropes, and pitons to the ceiling, gradually expanding the area which could be explored in relative safety - where 'relative safety' means 'fighting bat-winged monsters while dangling from the ceiling on a loop of rope', as opposed to 'being eaten alive by bat-winged monsters while hanging from the roof by your fingertips'. Would not work with a party that has access to flight.
  2. There is no air. The whole area is flooded. Lamps and torches won't burn down there, and your exploration radius is limited by the time for which you can hold your breath. Also there are probably piranhas. Progress would be about locating air pockets and gradually extending longer and longer breathing tubes from the surface, allowing air to be pumped down to people exploring new parts of the complex. Would not work with a party that has access to water breathing magic.
  3. Everything is on fire. Even in fire-resistant clothing, the heat will rapidly kill you, although it doesn't seem to bother the fire-monsters who live down here. Each expedition is a rapid dash through the flames and back again before you die of heat exhaustion, gradually allowing you to construct a map of the complex. Would not work if one or more of the PCs is fireproof.
  4. Everything is frozen. Each expedition is a race against hypothermia. Also everything is slippery as fuck, so a big part of each delve will need to be devoted to hammering in more ropes and spikes to make it easier to retrace your steps next time. There are probably wampas or something down here, too. Would not work if one or more of the PCs is immune to cold.
  5. Everything is poisonous. The air is heavy with poisonous gas, and staying inside it for too long will mean absorbing a fatal dose. Visibility is also terrible. Each expedition will mean simply mapping out a little bit more of the complex hidden within the fog, and maybe figuring out ways to improve ventilation of specific areas, all while dodging the inevitable poison-gas-exhaling zombies stumbling around within the clouds. Would not work if one or more of the PCs is immune to poison.
  6. Everything is haunted. This whole area is infested with angry ghosts which howl in the minds of all who enter, causing hallucinations, panic attacks, and poltergeist activity. The longer the PCs remain within it, the higher their risk of succumbing to possession or insanity. Assuming they have a cleric with them, progress means dashing into the zone, consecrating a tiny area to keep the ghosts out, and then dashing back again, gradually building up a network of 'safe zones' from which the area can be explored. Of course, some of the ghosts take the more direct approach of possessing corpses or objects and straightforwardly attempting to murder the intruders...

Thursday, 15 March 2018

[Actual Play] The Glasstown Job: Team Tsathogga pull off the crime of the century

So, remember when I said the Team Tsathogga PCs were planning a heist? This is how it went down.

The target was the Glasstown Academy of the Magical Arts, the kingdom's premiere institution of magical learning. When the ruthless mercenaries of the Company of the Hawk returned from Qelong, they brought with them a glass orb filled with akoum: the destructive magical radiation that had brought Qelong to its knees, which they had distilled in concentrated form from the corpses of innumerable victims in their unspeakable murder-castle. They then sold this orb to the Glasstown Academy. Abraxus, the head of the academy, and Hagen, the leader of the Company, had been carrying out research on it in a secret laboratory ever since.

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It was this orb that the PCs wanted to steal - partly because they had long-standing grudges against both Hagen and Abraxus, and partly because they had become convinced that their subterranean war with the Science Fungoids would only end if they could find a way to destroy the Demonspore, and smashing open an orb full of concentrated evil magic right on top of it seemed as good a way as any to pull that off. Their previous attempt to break into the academy had been thwarted by Hagen's soldiers, but they had since been neutralised: recognising that the true lifeblood of any mercenary company is money, the PCs broke into Hagen's castle and stole all his gold months ago, and had watched with grim satisfaction as most of his followers proceeded to desert him. They knew the lab itself was guarded by mirror men, so they had taken the precaution of commissioning a mirrored mask, of the same kind that the Glasstown wizards used when dealing with such creatures, in the hope that this would help to protect them. And they had started rumours among the townsfolk of Glasstown that the Academy was up to something awful and unholy, relying on illusion magic and the assistance of Sophie's ever-talkative college buddy Becky to keep the stories in circulation. Now, after months of groundwork, they felt that the time had come to make their move.

Their first step was to get one of their own inside the academy. Most of the PCs were persona non grata in Glasstown due to their previous run-ins with the authorities, but their new companion Norm - an elf drug pusher whom they had befriended in the underworld - was still unknown there, and could just about pass for a (very odd) human: so he was sent into Glasstown with a bag full of gold, with instructions to pose as a foreign nobleman interested in enrolling in the Academy. The wizards were rather alarmed by Norm's strange behaviour and even stranger dress sense: but his willingness to pay their outrageously inflated enrollment fees, coupled with his obvious magical talents, were sufficient to override their doubts and allow him to register as a student. Norm promptly rented a house in Glasstown, and smuggled the rest of the PCs into it under the cover of illusion magic - all except for the obviously inhuman Tiny and Princess, who set about constructing a hidden encampment in the woods several miles from the town.

Step two was to obtain a following among the students. Still posing as a newly-arrived foreign nobleman with more money than sense, Norm threw a lavish masquerade party for his new classmates, at which the wine and drugs flowed like water: using this as cover, the masked PCs then circulated among the guests, using Charm Person spells to recruit the more impressionable students into a made-up secret society. Over the next several days they gathered a group of eleven followers, inviting them to secret meetings at which they were plied with mystical-sounding platitudes, invented initiation ceremonies, and enormous quantities of mind-altering drugs.

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A bit like this but with way more narcotics.

Step three was gaining access to Abraxus. To these ends, Norm pretended to be completely starstruck, and approached the academy with a deal: he would give them a unique manuscript that he had brought with him from his 'family library', and all he wanted in exchange was a chance to have dinner with his academic idol. After seeing the manuscript - actually a copy of Magister Sorn's research notes on the snake-man ruins of the underworld - the wizards happily agreed, and soon Norm found himself at dinner with Abraxus, stealthily spiking his food with inhibition-lowering drugs.

After massaging the mage's ego with copious flattery, Norm told him a shocking secret: it had come to his attention that a rogue scholar named Simonides was delivering secret lectures to the students, free of charge, which undermined and ridiculed the teachings of the Academy. (The meetings of the 'secret society' had attracted enough attention to make this semi-plausible: it was obvious that something odd had been going on in Glasstown over the last few weeks.) Worst of all, the ideas which Simonides was promulgating had been blatantly and clumsily plagiarised from the research of Abraxus himself! Overcome with anger, Abraxus demanded that Norm reveal where this Simonides was to be found, so that he could be arrested: but Norm persuaded him that Simonides had a cult following among the students, and arresting him would only turn him into a martyr. Far better, he suggested, for Abraxus to come in secret to one of his lectures, and then defeat him in a public debate right in front of his followers, exposing him for the charlatan he surely was!

So the stage was set for step four: the fake lecture. The following night, in a rented room, 'Simonides' (actually Circe) held forth to an audience consisting of the PCs and their eleven student followers, all disguised in masks and robes. Outside, Norm stood with a spare robe and mask, waiting for Abraxus. And in a shadowy corner, swathed in cloth, lurked their ally, the Sister of Seraptis: a monster of the underworld with mouths in the palms of its hands, whose fangs injected a sedative poison which reduced its victims to a state of confused docility. The plan was to coax Abraxus inside, have the creature grab him and drug him, and then exploit his bewildered state to gain access to the laboratory in which the orb was held.

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Free education, Team Tsathogga style.

Unfortunately for the PCs, Abraxus didn't come alone: he brought Hagen with him, eager to give his fellow researcher a chance to witness what he was certain would be his spectacular victory over 'Simonides'. Norm explained to Abraxus that Hagen couldn't join him inside, as he only had one spare robe and mask, and otherwise the effect of Abraxus revealing himself to the crowd would be ruined: so Abraxus reluctantly agreed that Hagen could wait outside, at least until the true confrontation began. Norm then led the masked Abraxus into the hall, where 'Simonides' was delivering a lecture composed of mystical gibberish, plagiarised research, and demands for free education. Trembling with rage, Abraxus tore off his mask and began denouncing Simonides as an imposter, challenging him to a debate on magical theory which would prove the true depths of his ignorance to everyone present, but 'Simonides' replied that Abraxus couldn't possibly compete with his 'hands-on teaching style'. Then the Sister grabbed Abraxus from behind and sank its poisonous teeth into the back of his neck - and one failed saving throw later, the master mage was reduced to staring blankly at the audience, apparently lost for words.

There was no time for the PCs to exult in this victory, however, as they knew Hagen would still have to be dealt with. Hoping to lure him inside, Norm yelled out that Abraxus had just suffered a stroke - but the only response was an odd creaking sound from the roof. Cautiously, the PCs moved out into the street outside, but Hagen was nowhere to be seen. Then, from somewhere, came a sound like the cawing of birds - and abruptly the students (and half the PCs) began to scream in abject terror as the world seemed to warp around them, the walls cracking and sliding, their bodies seemingly sloughing apart into heaps of hideous carrion. The shrieking, panicking audience fled into the street, and by the time Sovan managed to calm everyone down with a Dispel Magic spell, Hagen had already taken the opportunity to slip into the building and was starting to drag the stricken Abraxus upstairs. And what, exactly, was that huge flapping thing on the roof?

Sovan ran inside to try to stop Hagen - but the mercenary mage made a hook-fingered gesture and Sovan fell, psychically pinioned to some cosmic crag, helplessly hearing the approach of terrible wings. With dreadful effort he forced himself to move, casting Hold Person, but Hagen shrugged off the spell and the strain of casting it nearly killed him. Seeing Sovan collapse in the doorway, Hash and Skadi ran in and started firing arrows - but their shots simply tore holes in Hagen's clothes, revealing the glinting shirt of enchanted mail he wore beneath it, as he continued to haul Abraxus upstairs. Meanwhile the creature on top of the house - which seemed to be Hagen's pet bird, somehow grown to monstrous proportions - was tearing the roof away with its talons. Panicking students were fleeing in every direction, tearing off their masks while howling about visions and monsters, and from a nearby window the ever-reliable Becky looked out and screamed: 'OmiGAWD! The curse of Anthrax and Judacus has come again!'

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The situation was now deteriorating rapidly. Sophie cast Magic Missile on the bird, but while the blast caused a rain of apparently mummified flesh and dusty feathers to pour down into the street, the creature seemed undeterred by the damage it had sustained. Circe tried her snake-man pain wand, but the bird didn't even flinch. Skadi charged upstairs in pursuit of Hagen, and threw a vial of space-acid into his chest: ashen-faced with pain, Hagen responded with a spell that sent Skadi staggering back, torn by spectral talons. Then the very real talon of the giant bird reached through the roof and lifted both Hagen and Abraxus into the air, despite the volley of spells and arrows that the PCs hurled after it, and proceeded to wing its way towards the academy.

The party considered fleeing - but decided that with Abraxus sedated, Hagen badly wounded, and Glasstown in a panic, this was really too good an opportunity to miss. So instead they rushed to the academy, where the bird had dropped Hagen and Abraxus off on a balcony, before shrinking rapidly to normal size and following them inside. Hash cast Invisibility on himself, scaled the wall and tied a rope to the balcony; inside he could see Hagen slumped in a chair, talking to two men in academic gowns, who were taking turns to examine the unresponsive Abraxus. The rest of the party crossed the street and climbed the rope under the cover of an illusion spell cast by Sophie, who remained lurking in the alleyway below - but her illusion couldn't cover the inside of the chamber, to which she had no line of sight. So instead Pole cast Obscuring Mists, and under the cover of this sudden fog cloud the rest of the PCs swarmed up into the room - just in time to hear one of the academics incant a Dispel Magic spell. Instantly the mists vanished - and for a single, frozen moment, the two sides stared at one another in horrified recognition...

Hash moved first. His bow was already in his hands: now, with lightning speed, he sent an arrow across the room, burying itself fatally between Hagen's eyes. As the mercenary mage dropped, so too did his pet, which was now very obviously nothing more than a long-dead mummified bird. Sovan moved next, unleashing a Hold Person spell which froze both academics where they stood. Swiftly, Hash and Skadi bundled Hagen's corpse, the two paralysed magi, and the drug-befuddled Abraxus out of the window, down the rope, and over to Sophie,  while Sovan rushed out and started dragging furniture across the stairwell, forming an improvised barricade to keep anyone else from coming up.

Meanwhile, Pole and Circe ran up the stairs to the secret lab, the location of which they had discovered during a previous botched break-in. The unfortunate servant who tried to stop them was hit by a Command spell ('faint'), fell down the stairs, got whacked on the head by Sovan, and was then shoved under a large, heavy item of furniture as part of the barricade. Using keys taken from Hagen and Abraxus, they unlocked the door, flinching as a magical alarm went off: but when other members of the teaching staff came running, they found the stairs barricaded, with Sovan yelling out that he was holding Abraxus hostage and would kill him if they came any closer. (Meanwhile, yet another luckless servant who spotted all the shenanigans outside got shot in the neck by Hash before he could raise the alarm. Team Tsathogga may be many things, but genuine heroes they are not.)

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High-speed barricade building is a skill every adventurer should learn!

Donning the mirrored mask, Pole stepped into the lab - and found himself face-to-face with the mirror men, who the party had been terrified of ever since their first brush with them at level 1. His mask ensured that they didn't attack him on sight, but the mirror men still wouldn't let him go anywhere near the orb, and insisted that they would only negotiate with him if he showed them his face - something he was intensely unwilling to do. With the situation on the stairs getting increasingly desperate, Pole requested the mirror men to speak to him at noon the next day, which they agreed to do. Then he, Circe, and Sovan fled down the rope as the barricade was blasted apart by a bunch of angry wizards below.

Fortunately for the PCs, Glasstown was still in a stage of upheaval, with terrified crowds convinced that the wizards had unleashed some awful monster upon them yet again. Using all the chaos as cover, they escaped over the walls and fled back to Tiny's hidden camp in the woods, using the Sister to sedate their two captive academics into submission before the Hold Person spell wore off. After looting Hagen's body for spellbooks and magic items, they questioned Abraxus about the nature of his bargain with the mirror-men, learning that Hagen had provided him with some 'undesirables' whom he had handed over to them, feeding their hunger for faces, in return for their service as guardians. Only he and Hagen were permitted to enter the lab, and only he could renegotiate or cancel their contract. The next day, at noon, the PCs spread a suit of stolen reflec armour out on the ground as an improvised mirror, and Pole leaned over it wearing his mirror-mask. Sure enough, his reflection began speaking to him: and after a few more failed attempts to get the mirror-men to change their position, Pole simply had the still-drugged Abraxus come over and release them from their contract. Given that only Hagen and Abraxus had been able to go into the lab safely, the PCs guessed that it would be quite some time before the rest of the Glasstown staff realised that the mirror-men inside it were gone. Now all they needed to do was get someone inside the academy.

That night, Sophie approached Glasstown from the west under the cover of illusion magic, accompanied by the Sister and her three new thralls. At the same time, Sovan and Hash crept towards the town from the east under the cover of darkness. When they were just out of sight of the city walls, Sophie stripped the three men naked and tied them together at the ankles, and the Sister ordered them to walk towards the city walls, crying out that they had escaped from their captors in the hills to the north. Sure enough, as soon as Abraxus and the other kidnapped professors were sighted from the city walls, a general alarm went up, with wizards and constables rushing out to bring them into safety and check for any signs of an ambush. While the town's guards were thus distracted, Sovan cast Strength and Silence on Hash, Hash cast Invisibility on himself, and then the silent, invisible elf slipped over the walls and hurried through the streets to the academy.

Scaling the walls and climbing through a window, Hash found the lab guarded by two armed men - but he could see in the dark and they couldn't, so he shot out their lamp and used his heightened strength to shove them both downstairs while they stumbled around in the darkness and magically-induced silence. Using Abraxus' stolen key he unlocked the lab door, relying on Sovan's Silence spell to hush the alarm: the mirror men had departed with the cancellation of their contract, so nothing remained to stop him from grabbing the orb and fleeing the town under the cover of a Darkness spell. He then rejoined the others at Tiny's camp, and the whole group hastily decamped in the direction of Bright Meadows, confident that by the time Abraxus and the other academics recovered from the Sister's poison they would be far away.

But before he left the academy, Hash left a note pinned to the wall, written in an elegant, flowing hand:

Witness the vengeance of Simonides!
The curse of Anthrax and Judacus is upon you!!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

RPG books as fiction

It seems to me that the majority of RPG books are in denial about their true function.

Most setting books maintain the pretense that someone's going to pick them up and run them, as written, straight out of the book. That someone out there will really run a whole campaign set in Your Made-Up Campaign World, just the way you wrote it, and that when their players ask them 'Who's the mayor of this town?', they're actually going to page through your Big Book of Made-Up Facts and give the answer that you've written down. Similarly, most adventure modules pretend - rather endearingly - that someone is actually going to run them exactly as written, right down to the read-aloud text. Monster books pretend that someone will actually use their monsters in play, giving them exactly the descriptions and statistics assigned by the book. And so on.

But even the briefest comparison between the way most RPG books are written and the way most actual RPG campaigns are played will demonstrate that this can't possibly be the case. For a start, how long is the average campaign, these days? Thirty sessions? Twenty? Ten? A 10-30 session campaign doesn't need whole continents worth of detailed setting information: one home base with 5-10 adventure sites scattered around it is closer to the mark. And yet campaign settings continue to be written as though PCs will wander around in them for years and years of real-time, roaming from city to city, province to province, like a band of high fantasy Marco Polos. They trade on the fantasy of a D&D campaign as something that might run more-or-less forever, rather than reality that you're usually looking at five or six interconnected adventures at best.

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No-one is ever going to use your road-by-road random encounter tables!

Adventure modules are, in theory, more realistic propositions, but they are produced - and purchased - in a volume that bears no resemblance to the rate at which they could actually be used. Plenty of people have bought all the D&D 5th edition hardback adventures - but playing through them all as written, at a rate of one session per week, would require a group to have been doing nothing else since 5th edition was released in 2014. The Pathfinder adventure paths are even more extreme: the Paizo forums are full of people who've read them all, but I would be surprised if anyone in the world had actually played them all as written from beginning to end. (You'd probably need to have been meeting twice a week, continuously, since 2007!) Then there are all the innumerable third-party modules which Bryce wades through so heroically over at tenfootpole. Many of those adventures probably aren't run as-written by anyone other than their playtesters (if they even have any), but people still buy them and read them. Browsing through the module reviews on RPGNow, DrivethruRPG, or DM's Guild, it rapidly becomes apparent that reviews by people who have actually played the modules, rather than just read them, are in a tiny minority.

Bryce often points out that the vast majority of adventure modules are written in a way which makes them almost useless for their supposed purpose of 'running a game in real-time at the table'. This is so obvious, and so trivially demonstrable, that its continued persistence strongly indicates that this is in fact not what most adventure modules are being used to do, and probably not even what most of their purchasers want them to do, even though it's exactly what most of their authors assert they are actually for. I strongly suspect that the same is true of most published campaign settings, monster books, etc, most of which similarly seem to be written with much more of an eye to being read than to being used. Not that there's anything surprising about this: after all, if people only bought the adventure modules, supplements, and campaign settings that they actually, seriously intended to use as-written, then the whole RPG book market would be a fraction of its current size. In the last two years, I've directly used six RPG books - Liberation of the Demon Slayer, Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence, Demonspore, Qelong, Death Frost Doom, and a couple of bits from Petty Gods - but, thanks to the magic of pdf-only bundle deals, I wouldn't know how to begin counting how many I've read. A hundred? More?

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Oh, Bundle of Holding. This is all your fault.

Skerples recently argued that there are three kinds of modules, which he calls 'modules as novels', 'modules as manuals', and 'modules as art'. I think he's onto something, and I don't think that it's only modules that his division applies to. Furthermore, I'd suggest that these three kinds of RPG writing correspond to three different ways of using RPG books:
  • RPG books written like manuals are best adapted to being used as-is at the table. Nothing else stands much chance of surviving contact with the chaotic process of actual play. 
  • RPG books written as art are best adapted to being used by people who are preparing or running RPG campaigns, and who are looking for material to adapt or borrow for their own games. Their true purpose is not to be used as-written, but to inspire GMs to come up with better material than they might otherwise have done. 
  • RPG books written as novels are best adapted to being read as a rather esoteric form of genre fiction.
This third one is one of the dirty little secrets of the RPG industry: that lots and lots of RPG books are bought and read by people who don't use them in play, and who know that they have no realistic prospect of ever doing so. RPG books written like novels proliferate not only because many people have no idea how to write useable adventure modules, but because that's precisely how they will be read by a large segment of their target audience. For such readers, reading the book, and imagining what the experience of playing it at the table might be like, takes the place of actually playing the game. As Skerples notes, 'If you're a big established game company with well-entrenched rich IP, your gamebooks can become storybooks.' (Anyone who remembers the bad old days of 1990s RPG metaplot will recall how literally this used to be the case!)

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Thanks to 'adventures' like these, you too can have the thrilling experience of watching passively while super-powerful NPCs do things which will later be important to the metaplot!

If you don't do it yourself, it can be a bit counter-intuitive to think of RPG books being read as fiction. After all, the world is full of actual stories by professional authors, most of which are rather better-written than the average RPG sourcebook: so why read an RPG book when you could read a novel instead? But I suspect that what such books primarily provide, which traditional adventure fiction does not, is a form of meta-fantasy: not a chance to imagine yourself as a fantasy hero, but a chance to imagine yourself as part of a group of RPG players who are, in turn, imagining themselves as fantasy heroes as they experience the material in the book. People read RPG rulebooks, and they imagine how much fun it would be to play a character with a certain set of abilities. They read monster books, and imagine how much fun it would be to encounter those monsters during an RPG session. They read setting books, and imagine how great it would be to participate in a campaign set in that world. They read adventure modules, and imagine how much fun those adventures would be to play in. Then they put them back on the shelf and do something else, instead.

RPGs are hardly alone in this: it's well-known that people buy cookbooks on cuisine they'll never seriously attempt to cook, guidebooks on places they have no real intention of visiting, magazines full of detailed reviews of things they'll never be able to afford to buy, and so on. Reading about things usually isn't as satisfying as doing them, but it's much easier and less risky: reading an adventure module and daydreaming about playing it is a pleasant and undemanding way to spend an hour, whereas actually running it would require time, organisation, commitment from several people, and a real risk of failure or disappointment. I'm pretty sure that Paizo, at least, are well aware that more people buy their adventure paths to read than to play. Their whole business model makes a lot more sense once you recognise that they are primarily in the business of putting out monthly installments of shared-universe fantasy serial fiction for an audience of long-term subscribers, rather than that of producing usable adventure modules for people to actually run at the gaming table.

(Thus Bryce's endless complaints about D&D modules which dictate what the PCs should do, thus nullifying the point of the players turning up in the first place. Once it's understood that, in many cases, there are no players and never will be, the complaint becomes moot...)

Now, reading RPG books as fiction is a pretty harmless pursuit - and it's certainly one I've engaged in myself at various points in my life, when my circumstances made actual gaming impossible. However, problems can arise out of mismatched expectations - and the books themselves often aggravate this, by pretending to be things that they quite transparently are not. I recognise, of course, that the same book can serve different functions to different people: after all, many groups apparently do play through Pathfinder adventure paths exactly as-written, even though I struggle to understand how. But all too often, RPG books are riddled with what I've sometimes seen described as 'cargo cult design': the insertion of material (e.g. backstory, read-aloud text, extensive NPC statistics, price lists, floorplans, etc) simply because the authors have seen those things in other RPG books, rather than because they actually help the book to function in its primary role. Of course, I don't expect any author of RPG books to actually admit that their books are primarily intended to be read as fiction rather than used at the table: doing so would destroy the whole illusion on which the 'RPG book as fiction' subgenre is built. But I think that a bit more honesty and clarity about whether a given book is actually intended for use directly as-written or as a source of indirect inspiration, and a bit more effort devoted to matching form to function, could often go a very long way!

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Team Tsathogga: the state of play

This week's Team Tsathogga session was a bit of a milestone for the campaign: the first time we devoted an entire session to the PCs just travelling from place to place, gathering information and making arrangements with their various allies. No-one got stabbed. Nothing got stolen. It was all just long conversations and complicated overland travel. (The PCs are currently planning a heist, though, so I'm sure things will be back to normal next session.)

When I started this campaign, I deliberately kept things very simple. Most of the players were completely new to RPGs, so I wanted to keep set-up time to an absolute minimum: they rolled up some 0-level characters, I told them 'you're a bunch of serfs who have been sent by your community to retrieve a magical sword believed to be hidden in some nearby caverns', and off they went. One side-effect of this was that their PCs didn't really have any ties to their home village. The in-character reason for this was that their PCs were the kind of socially isolated (and thus socially expendable) people that you'd expect a medieval community to pick for a subterranean suicide mission. The out-of-character reason for it was because I didn't want to waste time on it: I wanted to get them into the dungeon ASAP, and allow all the character development to emerge organically from actual play.

But the result of this, which I really hadn't foreseen when we started playing, was that the dungeon then became their home. They made friends with the elves, and the goblins, and the toad-men. They became Tsathogga cultists after discovering a temple to him down in the underworld. As they've travelled further across the world, encountering all kinds of bizarre monsters in the process, their first question has always been 'can we ally with it?' rather than 'can we kill it?' Two and a half years of game-time later, they've ended up with a network of friends, allies, contacts, and minions so extensive that entire sessions can be consumed in managing them, as became apparent this week.

Anyway. This is a snapshot of their current situation.

Current party members:
  • Circe, Warlord High Priestess of the Frog God (Cleric 5).
  • Hash, elf adventurer (Elf 5).
  • Norm, elf drug pusher (Elf 4).
  • Pole, toad-man fungus-brewer (Cleric 4).
  • Sophie the Muscle Wizard, college dropout (Magic-User 5).
  • Sovan, half-man half-lotus (Cleric 5).
  • Skadi the Indestructible (Fighter 5).
  • Tiny, demon scout (Fighter 5).
Current Followers:
  • Hallgerd, Dark Folk emissary of the Navigator Houses of Nox.
  • Princess, an ancient engineer robot from space.
  • The Red, a giant riding toad.
  • The Sister of Seraptis, a four-armed underworld creature of uncertain origin, kept drugged at all times for safety.
  • Spy Rat, rodent espionage expert extraordinaire.
Ex-party members (now allies of the party):
  • Atella, craftswoman (Fighter 4)
  • Erin, king of the Purple Islands (Fighter 3)
  • Hogarth of the Purple Hand (Magic-User 5)
  • Jack the Fighter, too pretty to die (Fighter 5)
  • Kroak, toad-man revolutionary (Cleric 3)
  • Zeth, mad scientist (Magic-User 4)
  • Ambie, a baby snake-man who is being raised by Zeth under carefully controlled conditions.
  • Andrew and Sarah, angels of the Church of the Bright Lady.
  • The Archivist, keeper of the Great Machine and leader of the Purple Islands tunnel-dwellers.
  • Becky, an undergraduate student at the Glasstown Academy of Magical Arts.
  • Captain Catherine, mercenary captain, Jack's one-time lover. 
  • Dara, a Qelongese nun turned golden lotus farmer.
  • Dopey, Spacy, Sleepy, Trippy, Zoned, Stoned, and Manic, seven drug-addled elves whom the PCs reunited with their families.
  • Elder Amelia, a senior cleric in the church of the Bright Lady and a secret alien.
  • The Fleshdregs, a gang of misunderstood mutant monsters living in a forest, protected by sympathetic outlaws. 
  • General Ngour, commander of the garrison of Xam.
  • Goblin Jack, Hogarth's goblin apprentice, a necromancer of great ambition and little talent.
  • Grik, Grak, and Gruk, goblins, the Low Priests of the Frog God.
  • Hash's mum, who cooks great fungus pasta.
  • King Nath, current ruler of Qelong.
  • Marcus, a psychic head-in-a-jar recently attached to an alchemically-animated zombie body.
  • Matthew, a grizzled sea-captain.
  • Mai, a senior Qelongese cleric.
  • Navigator Hafdan, governor of Stoneport and representative of the Navigator Houses of Nox.
  • The Putrescence, a giant purple cloud-monster controlled via an ancient brain-melting machine.
  • Sergeant Ribbet, mutant toad-man soldier, who governs the goblin warrens in Circe's absence.
  • Tad and Wort, toad men who owe their lives to the PCs.
  • Tarsh and his daughter Zeniba, sub-chiefs of the Purple Islanders.
  • Titus, an elderly cave-dwelling necromancer, brother to Marcus.
  • Toad-man rebels hidden throughout the forces of the Science Fungoids, who pretend to be loyal to their masters, but still secretly follow the teachings of the Frog God and look to Circe and Kroak for deliverance.
  • Vem, a huntress, now war-leader of the people of the Purple Islands.
  • Volf, a medical student, Jack's one-time boyfriend.
  • Vorn, leader of the Free Demons, and his followers.
  • Several tribes of goblins.
  • A swarm of twenty giant projectile maggot vomiting zombie vampire toads.
  • 30-odd (very odd) mutant toad-man soldiers.
  • A large village inhabited by a combination of Qelongese refugees, ancestor-worshipping fishermen, converted cultists, and mostly-reformed cannibal savages.
  • A hidden community of tunnel dwellers, who have preserved ancient scientific knowledge long thought lost on the surface world.
Notable Assets:
  • Cleaver which infects anyone injured by it, gradually turning them into spore zombies.
  • Chest full of stolen gold.
  • Collection of magic daggers.
  • Demon-slaying sword. (Dropped it on Deathfrost Mountain, totally going back for it some day.)
  • Dwindling supply of space acid.
  • Evil madness-and-mutation-inducing necromantic spellbook in a locked lead-lined box.
  • Forest of hallucinogenic fungi.
  • Garden of narcotic lotus flowers.
  • Gas mask.
  • Half-finished demon in a spawning vat.
  • Huge quantities of drugs and poisons.
  • Laser bracelet.
  • Massive favour owed by the King of Qelong.
  • Monster creation workshop (work in progress).
  • Network of psychic brains in jars, currently tuned directly to the god-mind of the Devourer.
  • Sailing ship.
  • Shock baton.
  • Snake-man pain wand.
  • Space suit (ape-man sized).
  • Ring of Water Walking.
  • Vampire toad spawning grounds.
  • The brainwashed demon army of the snake-men.
  • The Company of the Hawk.
  • The Devourer cult.
  • The Golden Lotus adepts loyal to Master Prem.
  • The Order of the Divine Surgeon.
  • The staff of the Glasstown Academy of Magical Arts.
  • The Science Fungoids.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

When all you have is a hammer: item-based problem-solving in OSR D&D

When players in a D&D game are confronted with a problem or an obstacle, the first thing they often do is look over their character sheets to see if they have anything that will help them to overcome it. The first place they'll usually look is at their spells and abilities, and plenty of OSR writing has been devoted to discussing the kind of abilities which are likely to lead to inventive and entertaining problem-solving rather than brute-force solutions: a magic-user with the spells fireball, acid arrow, and magic missile is inevitably going to approach situations very differently to one with fly, invisibility, and ventriloquism. But the second place they tend to look is their equipment list - and the role of items and equipment in OSR games is one I see much more rarely discussed.

The single most iconic item in fantasy fiction is the sword: but the sword, while deadly and beautiful and symbolically powerful, is in many ways a very boring object. It's a specialised weapon of war, designed for a single purpose: you can't dig holes with it, or cut down trees with it; or even efficiently break objects with it. All you can really do with a sword is either stab someone, or threaten to stab them - and doing either of those tilts situations very rapidly in the direction of violence. When all you have is a sword, every scene looks like a fight scene.

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If I had a sword, I'd sword things in the morning! I'd sword things in the evening! I'd sword thing's all day!

Hammers, picks, and axes are a bit better, because they all allow you to interact with your environment, as well as being useful for killing your enemies. Bows are better still, because arrows can be used as delivery systems for all kinds of other things, such as fire, ropes, messages, or holy water. (The Thief video game system took this concept to hilarious extremes.) But the best kind of objects are the ones which have a whole range of uses. Consider, for example, a large bottle of spirits... you could share it with people to make friends. You could give it to someone as a bribe. You could use it to get someone drunk so they didn't notice your nefarious schemes. You could use it to clean a wound. You could use it as a battlefield anaesthetic. You could use it to start a fire. You could use it to wash sticky contact poison off an object. If you've swallowed something you really shouldn't have, you can drink it all in one go to make yourself vomit. And, yes, if it comes right down to it, you can smash the bottom off the bottle and stab people with the pointy end.

If players have this stuff on their character sheets, then they're much more likely to approach situations in inventive ways. If your equipment list reads 'longsword +2, warhammer +1, bow with 12 explosive arrows', then your PC is likely to act as if you were playing an MMO: all you have are tools for killing things, so the only meaningful question is exactly which tool will help you to kill this particular thing fastest. But if it reads 'fishing rod, porcelain mask, bag of marbles, vial of phosphorous', then you're much more likely to start acting as if you were in an old Monkey Island adventure game, instead, and start dreaming up all kinds of crazy 'use fish with blanket on ogre' style solutions to the problems which confront you. If that's something you're keen to encourage, though, there's a certain level of difficulty involved in getting those sorts of objects onto their character sheets in the first place. Old-school adventurers are much more likely than their new-school equivalents to arrive at a dungeon entrance carrying crowbars, hatchets, flasks of oil, skins of wine, ten-foot poles, hammers, mirrors, and whatnot. But very few PCs are going to weigh themselves down with eight or nine pieces of random junk just in case they turn out to be useful later.

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'So, this is what I'm planning to take with me into the dungeon...'
Fortunately, most D&D PCs are total magpies when it comes to anything magical or valuable - and if you're running a game in which gp = xp, your PCs are basically guaranteed to hoover up every valuable object they stumble across. The trick is to make them valuable enough that the PCs won't ignore them, but not so valuable that they won't want to risk losing or breaking them as part of their latest crazy scheme. About 10gp per level should do the trick.

So here's a handy list of 100 valuable objects suitable for placement in dungeons or treasure hauls, which also double as problem-solving fodder. PCs will pick them up with the intention of selling them later, and ultimately they probably will: but between acquisition and sale they'll have them written on their character sheets, ready to catch their eyes when they look down at their equipment list for something that might help them to overcome their latest obstacle, and prompt them to start thinking: 'Hang on. If I use the glue with the hat on the goblin, then this just might work...'

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One Hundred Items for Problem-Solving
  1. A spool of very fine wire copper wire. Useful for setting trip-wires, rigging up pulleys, and conducting electricity. Worth 10 gp to jeweller or mechanic.
  2. Bag of small, extremely bouncy rubber balls. Worth 10 gp to an entertainer or parent.
  3. Antique but functional fishing rod, complete with box of tackle and line, suitable for hooking all kinds of different things. Worth 10 gp to an antiquarian (or someone who really needs a fishing rod).
  4. A vial of white powder which, if swallowed, acts as a powerful emetic. As well as its obvious medicinal uses, it could be used to incapacitate someone with violent vomiting, or to force some horrible monster to vomit up the person it just swallowed whole. Worth 10 gp to a doctor.
  5. A large box of shiny silver pins. Can be used to pin things together, or scattered over the floor as improvised caltrops. Worth 10 gp to a tailor.
  6. Several jars of thick, high-quality actor's face paint. Useful for disguise, camouflage, pretending to be an orc, etc. Worth 10 gp to an actor.
  7. Large, highly polished metal mirror. Handy for reflecting light and lasers, setting up tricks with smoke and mirrors, etc. Worth 10 gp to just about anyone.
  8. A box of perfumed candles with different scents and sizes. Can be lit in different combinations to create various combinations of light and scent; can also just be squashed down into wax if you need to take an impression of something. Worth 10 gp in any large settlement.
  9. Broad-brimmed fisherman's hat. Waterproof and wide enough to conceal most of the wearer's face. Could be used as an improvised boat for carrying small objects across water. Worth 10 gp to anyone who spends a lot of time in the rain.
  10. Finely-made snorkel. Worth 10 gp to a swimming enthusiast.
  11. Several bars of high-quality scented soap. Extremely slippery when wet. Worth 10 gp to any member of the middle or upper classes.
  12. Large, ornate drum. Generates incredible amounts of noise when beaten. Worth 10 gp to a musician.
  13. Bag of strong chilli powder. Stir it into food for a murderously hot meal, or blow it into people's eyes and noses as an irritant. Worth 10 gp to a chef.
  14. Vial of strong acid. Handy for etching, ruining locks, pouring on people you hate, etc. Worth 10 gp to an alchemist.
  15. Several tubes of white powder, which cause itching and intense irritation on contact with skin. Pour one into someone's clothes and they'll be itching around for days. Worth 10 gp to a practical joker.
  16. A very long pair of pincers, ornately moulded so their nippers resemble the jaws of a dragon. Useful for pulling nails out of things, and for picking up objects you'd rather not touch. Worth 10 gp to a smith.
  17. Academic gown, hood, and bands. Handy if you want to look clever, or infiltrate a university. Worth 10 gp to an academic tailor.
  18. A box of high-quality costume jewellery: obviously fake on close inspection, but from a distance it'll look as though you're wearing a king's ransom. Handy if you're baiting a trap, or if you want to pretend to be richer than you are. Worth 10 gp to actors. 
  19. An engrossing and well-written mystery novel: it's not very deep or clever, but pick it up and you'll soon be wondering where the last six hours went. Handy if you need someone to be distracted without realising it. Worth 10 gp to book collectors and people with boring jobs.
  20. Intricately made wind-up clockwork toy. Can be used to carry small objects, depress pressure plates, set off traps, etc. Worth 10 gp to a mechanic or wealthy parent.
  21. Bag of glitter. If poured out, gets everywhere and is irritatingly difficult to get rid of. Anything that has been glitter-bombed will be highly visible by torchlight in the dark, making it a potential anti-stealth or anti-invisibility countermeasure. Worth 10 gp to entertainers.
  22. Box of bladders, which can be inflated like balloons and used as floats. Add a candle to turn them into crude hot air balloons. Worth 10 gp to a jester.
  23. Bottle of coloured ink, rare and hard to get hold of. Handy for making marks and staining things. Worth 10 gp to a scribe.
  24. A blood-curdling sermon about all the awful things the gods are going to do the world, and how richly we deserve them. Handy for putting the fear of God into people. Worth 10 gp to zealots and misanthropes.
  25. A long, strong, extremely stretchy elastic cord. Useful for bungee jumping and launching things out of improvised catapaults. Worth 10 gp to engineers or daredevils.
  26. Sturdy and well-made spiked mountaineering shoes. Excellent for walking over icy and/or uneven surfaces. Worth 10 gp to mountaineers.
  27. Weighted medicine ball. Aside from its uses in weight training, can be rolled like a bowling ball to knock things down. Worth 10 gp to fitness enthusiasts.
  28. A box of soft moulding clay: just add water and reshape as desired. Worth 10 gp to a sculptor.
  29. A bag of flash powder. When lit, it emits a blinding flash of light. Worth 10 gp to entertainers.
  30. A large, well-crafted, heavy-duty drill. Given time, it can be used to drill holes through stone. Worth 10 gp to a mason or a miner.
  31. A thick, heavy blanket covered in beautiful embroidered decoration. Can be used to bundle people up in, muffle objects to prevent them making a sound, pack fragile items, etc; you can also just wrap it around you as protection against the cold. Worth 10 gp to anyone who cares about staying warm in style.
  32. Large bronze fire-fighting syringe, capable of sucking up a couple of liters of liquid and then projecting it in a high arc over a distance of several yards. Worth 10 gp to anyone who lives in a fire-prone city (which is most of them).
  33. A bottle of potent weedkiller. Handy for clearing overgrowth, and extremely toxic to plant creatures (and, if swallowed, to non-plant creatures as well). Worth 10 gp to a farmer or gardener.
  34. A large jar of talcum powder. As well as its obvious uses to absorb moisture and reduce friction, it can be used in larger quantities to soak up dangerous liquids, or scattered around to mark invisible creatures. Worth 10 gp to any maker of cosmetics.
  35. A pair of finely-made ice skates. Worth 10 gp to anyone who lives in a cold climate.
  36. A stack of cheaply-printed pamphlets full of wild conspiracy theories, each supported by just enough evidence to sound plausible if you're not too well-informed and don't think about them too hard. Worth 10 gp to an agitator.
  37. A hand-cranked propeller. Can be used as a fan to direct or disperse gases, or to propel something through water. Worth 10 gp to an engineer.
  38. A joke book, full of genuinely hilarious (if rather mean-spirited) jokes. Give it to someone and they'll be laughing for hours. Worth 10 gp to jesters and entertainers.
  39. A long wooden box and two silvered glass mirrors, fitted together to form a crude periscope. If you pulled out the mirrors they'd be worth 10 gp each.
  40. A box of high-quality fireworks. When lit, they hurtle straight forward and explode, creating stupendous amounts of noise, sparks, and coloured smoke. Worth 20 gp to entertainers.
  41. A tiny steam engine. Add fuel and water and it spins around uselessly, but tie it onto something else and you could use it to power mechanism, drive a tiny steam car, or similar. Worth 20 gp to an engineer.
  42. A large net with an amazingly fine mesh, attached to a rope for throwing and hauling, and ringed with wickedly-sharp riphooks. Worth 20 gp to a fisherman.
  43. A foot-high black silk top hat. Useful if you need to make yourself look taller and/or classier. Worth 20 gp to a gentleman.
  44. A well-stocked box of herbs and spices. Can be used to add some flavour to the blandest meal - or to disguise the taste of whatever you've just added to someone's food. Worth 20 gp to a chef.
  45. Unnervingly lifelike doll. Likely to be mistaken for a real child at first glance. Worth 20 gp to a collector.
  46. Waist-length wig made from human hair. Useful for quick disguises and smuggling - you can hide a lot of objects under that much hair. In a pinch it could be used, Rapunzel-style, as a substitute rope. Worth 20 gp to people who wish they had more hair than they do.
  47. Stack of stamped certificates for academic qualifications, all filled out with the same almost-illegible name. Handy for people who want to pretend they have knowledge or status they don't really possess. Worth 20 gp to spies, charlatans, or college drop-outs.
  48. Wind-up clockwork music box. When cranked, plays the same tune over and over again until it winds down. Worth 20 gp.
  49. A deck of marked cards and a pair of loaded dice, both skilfully made. Worth 20 gp to a gambler.
  50. A sheet of strong, stretchy tarpaulin. Can be used as a tent, or as a waterproof covering for valuable objects; can also be stretched between two people and used as an improvised trampoline. Worth 20 gp to a sailor or traveller.
  51. Several tubes of brightly-coloured oil paint. Worth 20 gp to an artist.
  52. A box containing hundreds of tiny silver bells. Can be tied to strings, tripwires, etc for use as an alarm system. Worth 20 gp to a dancer or musician.
  53. Vial of glowing liquid: briefly emits light equivalent to a candle when shaken vigorously, but otherwise just emits a dull green glow. Can be painted over things to make them glow with an unearthly greenish light. Worth 20 gp to an alchemist.
  54. Vial of strong, fast-drying glue. Capable of bonding stone, glass, wood, or metal. Worth 20 gp to a craftsman or alchemist.
  55. Bottle of stimulants. A spoonful will keep you awake: drinking the whole bottle will keep you jerking and jittering around wildly for the next 48 hours. Worth 20 gp to watchmen or university students.
  56. Large bag of marbles, made from semi-precious stones to entertain some long-dead aristocratic child. Handy if you want to make something roll, or make someone trip over. Worth 20 gp to rich people with small kids.
  57. Expensive and strong-smelling perfumes. Handy for leaving scent trails, or masking your own smell. Worth 20 gp to anyone vain and/or high-status.
  58. A powerful magnet on the end of a stick. Worth 20 gp to an alchemist or engineer.
  59. A box of tooth-achingly sugary confectionery. Worth 20 gp to anyone with a sufficiently sweet tooth.
  60. Fashionable chopines (platform shoes) with eight-inch wooden platforms. Handy if the floor is six inches deep in something you really don't want to walk in. Worth 20 gp to any dedicated follower of fashion.
  61. A crude gas mask, made from a filter attached to a leather hood. Allows moderately safe movement through smoke, gas, etc. Worth 20 gp to an alchemist.
  62. A box of strong, tightly-coiled metal springs. Worth 20 gp to an engineer.
  63. A bag of grey powder which turns into fast-drying cement when mixed with water. There's enough here to make a couple of cubic feet. Worth 20 gp to builders in a hurry.
  64. A primitive hang-glider made from cloth and bamboo. Capable of carrying one human-sized passenger, provided they're not carrying anything too heavy. Worth 30 gp to adrenaline junkies.
  65. A fiery political tract, full of stirring revolutionary rhetoric, cataloguing the crimes of the ruling classes and calling upon the people to rise up. Handy if you want to rile up a mob in a hurry. Worth 30 gp to an agitator.
  66. Several large marionettes on strings. If skillfully operated, they could almost pass for real children when seen from a distance. Worth 30 gp to an entertainer.
  67. A bottle of alchemical lubricant. Makes things extremely slippery. Suitable for internal, external, and industrial use. Worth 30 gp to engineers or sexually adventurous individuals.
  68. Bag of smoke bombs: if thrown against a hard surface, they explode into a huge cloud of choking smoke on impact. Worth 30 gp to thieves, entertainers, and wannabe ninja.
  69. Suit of high-quality fur clothes, lined with fleece. Capable of keeping the wearer warm even in extremely cold conditions. Worth 30 gp to anyone who lives or works in cold environments.
  70. Ceramic mask painted with enamel to resemble a ferocious demonic face. Disturbingly realistic, especially if only glimpsed briefly. Worth 30 gp to an actor or collector.
  71. Bottle of strong, high-quality vodka. Can be used for cleaning, starting fires, or making people very drunk. Worth 30 gp to any connoisseur or alcoholic.
  72. Military medals from a recent campaign. Handy for making good impressions and convincing people of your valour and prowess. Worth 30 gp to a mercenary (they're good for business!) or collector.
  73. A sturdy magnifying glass. Handy for examining things close-up and concentrating light. Worth 30 gp to a sage or a craftsman.
  74. Ten yards of sturdy chains, connected together with three high-quality padlocks, their keys still inside them. Useful for connecting and/or restraining things. Worth 30 gp to a smith, jailer, or bondage enthusiast.
  75. Chess set with beautifully carved pieces. You'd be surprised how many dungeon occupants fancy themselves as chess masters. Worth 30 gp to any chess enthusiast.
  76. Sturdy pair of spectacles set with tinted glass, allowing even very bright lights to be looked at safely. Worth 30 gp to anyone with sensitive eyes.
  77. A book of rather moving and hepfully non-specific love poetry. Memorise some of it for next time you need to persuade someone just how much you adore them! Worth 30 gp to lovers or book collectors.
  78. Huge Gone With the Wind-style hooped ballgown. Has skirts wide enough to hide virtually anything under, up to and including another person. Worth 30 gp to a belle.
  79. A vial of sluggish fluid which acts as a powerful painkiller when swallowed. Can be used as an anaesthetic, or as a crude but effective knock-out drug. Worth 30 gp to a doctor.
  80. Engraved silver trumpet. Creates a loud, clear, piercing note when blown, audible from a great distance. Worth 40 gp to a herald or musician.
  81. An ornately engraved pipe and a pouch of fine tobacco, which has a very distinctive smell when smoked. Worth 40 gp to a smoker.
  82. A meticulously-catalogued collection of tiny feathers, taken from many different species of bird. You could blow them in someone's face to cause sneezing or tickling, or just to impede visibility. Worth 40 gp to a collector.
  83. A bottle of alchemical sleeping pills. Taking one will make you drowsy; taking a whole handful will knock you out for hours. Worth 40 gp to a doctor or insomniac.
  84. A signet ring, bearing the crest of a well-known noble family from a couple of provinces away. Very useful for forging documents. Worth 40 gp to a forger. 
  85. A primitive diving suit: leather suit, fish-bowl helmet, leather air hose and pump. Incredibly cumbersome to use. Worth 40 gp to a diver.
  86. A box of thin magnesium strips. Individual strips can be used as flares, or the whole box can be burned as an incendiary. Worth 40 gp to an alchemist.
  87. A leather bullwhip, marked with a monogram which implies it once belonged to a famous archaeologist. Not great as a weapon, but in the hands of an agile wielder it can be used to grab objects, swing from branches, pull levers, etc. Worth 50 gp to a collector.
  88. A jewelled ring, with a hidden panel concealed beneath the jewel, on which is painted the personal coat of arms of the reigning monarch. Handy if you want to pretend to be some kind of secret agent. Worth 50 gp to a jeweller.
  89. A box of valuable incense. If burned, emits quantities of thick, richly-fragrant smoke. Worth 50 gp to a priest.
  90. A small hand-cranked electrical generator. Capable of giving people minor electric shocks (no damage) if cranked vigorously. Requires a conductor such as wire or water to convey the electricity over a distance. Worth 50 gp to a wizard or engineer.
  91. A sturdy spyglass. Makes far-off things look closer. Worth 50 gp to a sailor. 
  92. A beautiful white wedding dress. Handy for faking tragic apparitions. Worth 50 gp to anyone who enjoys dreaming about their wedding day.
  93. Finely-embroidered clerical vestments. Useful if you want to pretend to be a high-ranking man or woman of the cloth. Worth 50 gp to a cleric.
  94. A waxwork model of a half-dismembered corpse. Looks horribly realistic when seen from a distance. Good for scaring people off. Worth 50 gp to a medical student or someone with extremely morbid taste in art.
  95. An umbrella made from alchemically-treated leather, which is not only waterproof but also highly resistant against fire, acid, etc. Worth 50 gp to an alchemist or adventurer.
  96. Several bottles of strong, fast-drying dye in a variety of bright colours. Can be used to stain objects, clothes, and even skin in different hues. Worth 50 gp to a dyer. 
  97. A protective suit made from alchemically-treated leather: it won't stop a fireball, but it is highly resistant to heat, acid, or fire. It's very stiff, though, so moving around in it is rather clumsy. Worth 50 gp to an alchemist or adventurer.
  98. A lovely porcelain tea set. Brings a touch of class to any social occasion. Worth 50 gp to an aristocrat or social climber.
  99. A flask of alchemical coolant. Drop it into a bowl of liquid to freeze it into ice, or put it into a crate to create a crude refrigerator. Worth 50 gp to a chef, noble, or alchemist.
  100. Fop's clothes: powdered wig, extravagant cravat, scented gloves, ultra-tight trousers, the works. Great if you want people to simultaneously regard you as highly important and yet not worth taking seriously, which can be a very useful combination. Worth 100 gp to an actual fop.
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