Sunday, December 29, 2019

Notes on Gardens of Ynn

The Gardens of Ynn is a delightful procedural pointcrawl, written by the talented Emmy Allen. I was fortunate enough to receive two copies as a gift from friends and family, and I inaugurated a session yesterday.

This is not a review in full. Instead, I will just note some thoughts, including tweaks I will make the next time I run the Gardens.
A wizard PC's spellbook, plus the "totally random" spells Detach Limb, Too Fast, Wall of Asbestos, Kindergarten, and Blaspheme

  • The book is laid-out well. I did find it useful to write a cross-reference to appropriate tables or entries.
  • I was uncertain about how to use the rumor table, since it was unclear to me how the inhabitants of Ynn could keep society with each other. This would have been a good place to put more overt advice on how to write adventures for Ynn-- something I am interested in doing. (Watch this space)
  • You could totally do an Over the Garden Wall-esque game in Ynn, bending the encounters to a relevant theme. When I ran it, the original party was composed of pensioners and retired adventurers, and the best location was an enchanting maze created by an old grandmother-tree so that she would not be lonely.
  • I love how easily Ynnian changelings can reintroduce players of dead characters, but its abilities aren't very interesting to me. I'm especially leery of giving half the party the ability to resurrect from flowers. A couple of times I just had players take up the roll of a salamander or a rose-maiden, and that worked out fine. Perhaps I will write up simple rules for level one PCs from Ynnian society.
  • I love how the map looks after a session! When I ran the first session, I did not show the map to the players as I marked it out, but that was probably a mistake. Looking at the map would have helped them realize they can actually go back to previous locations if they know the way.

d18 Plunder of an Arab-Syrian Gentleman; d8 Adventure Hooks for an Arab-Syrian Gentleman

I've been reading the Memoirs of Usama Ibn-Munqidh, translated by Philip K. Hitti. The memoirs provide the fascinating perspective of a Syrian poet reminiscing on his escapades around the time of the First Crusade. It is unclear how much of the memoirs are dramatized false memories, but it is fair to say that much of what Usama describes is influenced by his central belief that fate offers dramatic reversal of fortune. For instance, there is a passage that describes a grievous wound a horse receives and shrugs off, followed by one describing a horse who is killed by a minor scratch.

In other passages, we learn that if a man can still bite, his head injury is nonfatal; that striking an apostate with a sword just might invert his eyelids; that a clan of Arabs called the Banu-Ubayy eats only dead animals, don't contract diseases, and eat their guests. There are also many sections that describe loot acquired in this tumultuous time:
d18 Plunder of an Arab-Syrian Gentleman
  1. Six thousand egyptian dinars
  2. A camel-load of dablqi clothes (warm and silky fabric)
  3. Ciclatoun (an expensive red cloth)
  4. Squirrel-furred gowns
  5. Dmyati brocade
  6. Either turbans or ravens (translators aren’t sure)
  7. A gold bridle
  8. A robe of honor
  9. Twenty trays of silver holding twenty thousand dinars
  10. An assortment of clothing of all kinds, the like of which I never saw before in one collection.
  11. Thirty saddle mules and forty camels, all fully provided with their outfits, bags, and ropes.
  12. A young graceful ambler of a Frankish breed.
  13. A saddle that was quilted, had a black border, and was of extraordinarily beautiful effect.
  14. Jewelry, which had been entrusted to the women, clothes, gems, swords, weapons and gold and silver amounting to about thirty thousand dinars.
  15. Books, which were four thousand volumes, all of the most valuable kind. Their loss has left a heartsore that will stay with me to the last day of my life.
  16. Forty-three copies of the Koran, each containing the full text. One of the copies was huge, written in gold, and in which the writer included all the sciences of the Koran— its different readings, its obscure terms, its Arabic style and grammar, its abrogating and abrogated passages, its commentary, reasons for its revelation, and its jurisprudence. This copy, styled al-Tafsir al Kabir (the Great Commentary) was written in black ink alternating with red and blue. Another copy is transcribed with letters of gold, but this had no commentary. The rest of the copies were written in black ink with the following in gold: the first words of the tenth and fifth parts of the book, the number of verses, the first word of the Surahs, the titles of the Surahs and the headings of the sections.
  17. A jerkin enclosing a Frankish coat of mail extending to the bottom of it, with another coat of mail on top of it reaching as far as the middle. Both were equipped with the proper linings, felt pads, rough silk, and rabbit’s hair.
  18. A compound lance, which was formed by attaching one lance to another until the weapon became twenty cubits or eighteen cubits in length.

d8 Adventure Hooks for an Arab-Syrian Gentleman
  1. Your rival's father thinks he has left the military camp for amusements and pleasures, but in truth, he has gone to Cairo to conspire to kill you.
  2. Your father's rival offers you your father's place in the vizieriate if you kill him.
  3. The caliph travels in disguise with comrades of the same age, and that includes you; make sure no one kills him and dumps his body in a pit under their house.
  4. Your elder brother has been assassinated, and his killer declares you are to blame; you are to be put to death.
  5. When you march out to battle, your enemies close the gate and perform a coup.
  6. Your liege forces you to swear to travel with him; your wife, mother and children are forced to join his mother's baggage train.
  7. Your liege forces you to promise not to conspire against him, by the Koran and by divorce; this is in the middle of a conspiracy to overthrow him.
  8. The governor of a nearby city detains your family until the Franks promise them safe conduct. (Also, Franks love to break promises of safe conduct.)

Saturday, November 23, 2019

An American Campaign

Of late I have not published many blog posts. This is due in part to the advent of my latest weekly game, a campaign of a quite different character from what has previously been published here.

(Other reasons for my silence include an increased work schedule in the face of American Thanksgiving and editing for an upcoming book of poems.)

Still, though my weekly game is two steps removed from the OSR and OSR-adjacent content here published, I offer you a report of just what I have been doing, in the form of the blueprints of a campaign. It is the child of my love of history as well as my love of politics.

The title of the campaign is Foundling Fathers. It is an alternate history set in 1794, eighteen years after a minor uprising in the British American colonies was put down and its ringleaders hanged. Washington is dead. Jefferson is dead. Hamilton, Adams, the other Adams, and all other major would-be founding fathers are dead. Since that time, a French Republic led by the Marquis de Lafayette has managed to avoid the long and bloody terror that might have marked its birth, and the French government looks to start a second revolution in America.

This premise gets more interesting the more history you know, but I will go into more detail on the setting later. Equally important to the campaign is the theme of legacy. As anyone passingly familiar with America will know, its founding is a bizarre mixture of great idealism and tragic hypocrisy. Political compromises and moral philosophy collided, and for all the shortcomings of a new America, there was something astonishing in what limped out of 1789.

To represent this, PCs and a stable of NPCs possess legacies like equipment. Whomever holds these legacies get input into how a new America approaches each topic if it survives the war. So there are people running around with the legacy of the military, of western expansion, and of many historical factors that are more interesting to me than to almost anyone. While most legacies are singular, the most internecine have several copies. My current PCs have the legacies of freedom of the press, realpolitik, relationship with native tribes, and socialism in government.

Legacies can be stolen, won, and given away. In addition to giving you input into an American future, you can spend a legacy to avoid death, like fate points in Rogue Trader. Conversely, you can spend your life to "ensure" one of your legacies, buoying it after you are gone.

So not only are PCs trying to win a war against the greatest nation on the Earth, they are trying to secure these legacies. Many legacies are in the hand of occupying forces or loyalist forces, but most are in the hands of your allies-for-now in the Continental Congress.

The core of the game is an investigation of democracy with the benefit of hindsight. There is a sense of significance when players decide whether to work with (young, unimportant) Andrew Jackson, or whether they can afford trying to debate a Southern slaveholder for his legacy of slavery. So far, the conceit of legacies as tangible inventory items has clicked, and players have really let it lead them into some interesting places. Two sessions ago, a pirate captain managed to capture the party and ransom a legacy from each of them for their release, making her the most legacy-rich figure on the continent.

Freemasonry is great for adventure hooks. What are they up to?
Most of the legacies start out in the hands of the Continental Congress, made up of backbencher Revolutionaries and the crummiest figures I could find between 1776 and 1800. They include:

  • Benedict Arnold, general of the armies
  • Horatio Gates, glory-stealing general and usurper
  • Daniel Boone
  • Aaron Burr, who would have killed Alexander Hamilton and "tried to steal the west"
  • James Wilkinson, secret spy for the Spanish
  • James McFarlane, who would have led a veteran uprising against the government
  • Daniel Shays, who would have led the Whiskey rebellion
  • Andrew Jackson
  • John Sevier, who would have seceded from North Carolina and dueled Jackson
This is in addition to peripheral characters, such as a Napolean Bonaparte sent to govern French Haiti, or the British leadership figureheaded by the Duke of Wellington, Edmund Burke, Horatio Nelson, William Pitt, and a traitorous John Paul Jones.

Finding a system for this game has proven difficult, but I settled on Colonial Gothic, a "12-degree" system fit for playing something between Pirates of the Caribbean, the Patriot, and Call of the Cthulhu. The rulebook is riddled with typographical errors, but it is working well enough.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Notes on a Bad Meat Pile

I've been running players through a "proper" dungeon, with multiple levels, random encounters, and treasure tables. So far it's been great fun and I originally thought to post it in its entirety here. However, much of the dungeon's actual structure is uninteresting, so instead I will simply record all of the details and ideas which I think make "the Academy of Harmonious Ringen" worthwhile.

  • First of all, the town in which PCs make base is populated entirely by intelligent skeletons after the original inhabitants were killed by the necromancers who now inhabit the academy. This gives everything a melancholy air and gives plenty of little quirks. I decided that since they don't need to bother to farm, they endlessly write and perform plays. They totally make plays to commemorate the death of PCs.
  • The first "level" of the dungeon is the academy's buildings and training ground. Random encounters are mostly the leavings of fledgling necromancers, including an animated pile of meat (Bad Meat Pile, what my players dubbed the opposite of a skeleton;) vascular squids which wrap around their prey, and animate hands of glory.
  • The second "level" contains the necromancers, their followers, and their creations. Necromancer spells include:
    • Viscerakinesis: Telekinetically move anything made of meat. Give a -4 to the save for each additional die invested.
    • Runaway limb: target’s limb runs away in a random direction. (Can be reattached by pushing them together. D4 damage per die. Successful save prevents the damage and keeps the limb from getting too far.
    • Manipulate wound: You can communicate with an injury and convince it to act in various ways. This can do damage, but takes too long to use in combat.

  • The third "level" is the osteo-temple, the secret school of skeleton martial arts. This is what the academy above was meant to conceal, and what the necromancers are trying to break into.
  • The osteo-temple's encounter table includes Emerald-Eyes, a lich/osteo-martial artist. He will be encountered as long as his phylactery in the dojo is intact.
  • It is satisfying to weave together encounters from each level. One level three encounter is "two level two encounters, exploring," and I think it's elegant that this can provide new context to old elements. It's also an easy way to foreshadow. Level one encounter: broken skeletons. Level two encounter: intact skeletons. Level three encounter: broken Ancient Master. Level four...
  • The fourth and final level is the Ancient Master of the Osteo-Temple's strange menagerie. Among more mundane exhibits there is one for goblins, and another one with fish swimming in water enchanted not to leave its chambers. Bio-luminescent fish shed light on treasure, and it's only a 40' walk through the aquarium. Hidden tickle-fish make you lose your breath.
  • There's also a bird exhibit and it totally has a megoosa (or gorgoose.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Testing Equipment

Arnold K. says that when designing a dungeon you should ask "What is tested?" What follows is a list of standard equipment and how an environment may test for it. This list will be useful to me not because it is innovative but because it will help me remember to make equipment useful for exploring a dungeon. The listed challenges will for the most part be broad tests-- they will have many alternate solutions.
(I will know I have succeeded when players consider their main armaments based on their out-of-combat uses.)

  1. fire: a wooden door or barricade can be burned away, insects can be scared away or forced to sleep by smoke, darkness can be banished, ambiguous alchemical materials can be distinguished by how they burn.
  2. crowbar: doors can of course be pried open, but also lids, trapdoors, and wall decorations, openings can be jammed open.
  3. rope: a cliff can be climbed, a treasure can be lowered, restraints can be made, heavy items can be lifted with a block and tackle.
  4. Oil: see fire. Also, jammed machinery can be loosened.
  5. Spyglass: distant details can be made out from far away, small details can be made out, sunlight can be used to create a fire.
  6. Chalk: a labyrinth or confusing section of hallways can be notated.
  7. String: a cliff or wall can be climbed and you have wood to make a ladder. An item can be lowered down a small hole, something can be held in place, a tripline can be made.
  8. Shovel: see crowbar. Also, detritus can be cleared, buried objects can be freed.
  9. Grease: see fire and oil. Also, tight spaces can be squeezed through.
  10. Black powder: emplacements can be cleared, doors can be broken, wounds can be singed shut.
  11. Clawed hammer: Nails can be removed, metal can be shaped, rocks can be crushed.

Again, none of this is new, but I'm already daydreaming about confronting players with a totally mundane wooden barricade and challenging them to burn, cut, or dismantle it while under fire.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

d10 Economic Exchange Systems and a Draft for Barter Systems

d10 Economic Exchange Systems
  1. Currency (coins)
  2. Currency (coins and notes)
  3. Currency (coins and notes and stock and capital)
  4. Currency (rai stones)
  5. Barter (simple)
  6. Barter (Dzamalag)
  7. Barter (debt)
  8. Gift economy
  9. Stockpile allocation (communal)
  10. Stockpile allocation (tyrannical)

As my first Holy Selmat campaign winds down, I have the chance to look back and tweak things that did not go so well. One convention of the game which I loved in concept but which proved difficult in play is that most of the word does not use currency, and instead the barter standard is common. Players found this endlessly inconvenient, and often tried to juke it, looking for commodities that were “equivalent” to a gold piece, a silver piece, and so on. Worse still, I found it clunky enough that we often skipped over any actual barter and exchange.
So this is the first draft of my new barter economy. One resource which will be relevant to my travelling rules is “supplies.” One supply is enough to sustain one person for five days in food, warmth, water, and the like. Another resource is labor, skilled and unskilled. Unskilled labor can usually get you resources at the rate of one supply every five days, thus working for bed and board. Skilled labor will vary much more, but generally I’ll treat it as yielding two supplies every five days.
So the base denomination is time spent in work, a reality that successful parties will likely avoid. If they have devoted followers, they can reduce their upkeep in cities or even make a profit by finding work for them. 
Yet notably, the barter economy is incomplete. You are unlikely to purchase a sword with servitude or food. You have to engage in classic barter: the exchange of one valuable item for another. In this case I might have there be a simple procedure:
  • Person 1 proposes a trade.
  • DM decides if the trade is very roughly equivalent in person 2’s eyes.
  • If so, person 1 and person 2 test their charisma.
  • If the trade is roughly equivalent, the DM rolls 2d6 to determine if person 2 wants to make the trade, with higher numbers indicating higher degrees of interest. If both succeeded their test or neither did, take the average. If person 1 succeeded, the roll has advantage. If person 2 succeeded, the roll has disadvantage. 
  • On a high roll, person 2 errs on the side of accepting the deal. On a low roll, person 2 tries to get a better deal.
Finally, the gathering of supplies provides an interesting logistical challenge for long journeys. It is wholly possible to wander a month between cities in Holy Selmat, and you can’t carry a month of supplies on your back (One supply is equivalent perhaps to five equipment slots.) Hunting can ameliorate the upkeep, (either skilled or unskilled labor, depending on several factors) but you will need ways to carry supplies even then. This is where porters, carts, mules, and the like come in.

Gathering supplies
  • Bovine, milk: 2 supplies/month
  • Skilled labor: 12 supplies/month
  • Unskilled labor: 6 supplies/month

Harvesting supplies
  • Bovine, meat: 70 supplies
  • Pig: 10 supplies
  • Wheat, bushel: 20 supplies

Carrying supplies

  • Bovine: 20 supplies or one cart or half a wagon.
  • Cart: holds 40 supplies
  • Covered Wagon: holds 60 supplies
  • Donkey: 10 supplies
  • Horse: 10 supplies
  • Mule: 15 supplies
  • Person: 1 supply for every 5 strength they possess
  • Porter: 3 supplies

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

d10 Holy Drugs (Practitioners V. II)

In Holy Selmat, the first gigre was revealed to a village elder in a dream. It was the recipe for a drug that protected holy men and gave them miraculous powers. Since then, different gigre have been invented (discovered? bestowed?) and its use is common even outside of Selmat. The Prophet Ehud is said to have created several skews of gigre.

All drugs follow the same rules. Three times a day while under the effect of a drug, you can spend a "wisp" to either add a d8 to a related test or to use its associated power. Each drug has at least one commandment. Breaking it makes you Unclean, which is a condition that prevents you from benefiting from holy or chemic spells. It also makes you unlucky. If something bad happens to a random member of your party, it happens to you. You must spend an hour ritually cleaning yourself to undo this effect. So:

  • Wine: Helps to resist fear. You can get a feeling of whether divine magic is at play. Attacking your guest or host is unclean to you.
  • Opium: Helps to befriend intoxicated people. You can get a feeling of whether chemic is at play. Manual work is unclean to you.
  • Absynthe: Helps to resist fear. You can get a feeling of whether arcane magic is at play. Attentiveness is unclean to you.

Michael Sztuka Sowa

Gigre is different in only a few ways. It has more commandments, and sometimes has mortal sins. Commiting a mortal sin is like the fall of a paladin, and makes you unclean until you perform an extreme act of penance such as a quest. The upside is that gigres confer a greater power than mundane drugs. If you have are a practitioner, the Selmat equivalent of a paladin, gigres are abundant and have additional uses. A new gigre recipe makes for good treasure.

d10 Holy Drugs
  1. Gigre of Angled Sight: Must remain silent every seventh day. On all other days, must compose a stanza. Must only eat seeds and meat. Indiscretion is a mortal sin. Additionally, you can see around corners but dead bodies are unclean to you.
  2. Gigre of Justification: Must drink saltwater daily and only travel by starlight. Must keep a servant. Gullibility is a mortal sin. Additionally, you have an affinity with lions but the touch of a wolf is unclean.
  3. Gigre of Sensual Embers: Must obey all laws and break bread daily. Must mark yourself with the blood of a relative. Betrayal is a mortal sin. Additionally, menstruation is unclean but if you would become pregnant, you instead gain a temporary level for nine months.
  4. Gigre of Cometary Inertia: Must stay perfectly groomed. Must burn incense in prayer daily. Cannot ride any animal. Malice is a mortal sin. Additionally, you are untrippable and inexorable but sex is unclean to you.
  5. Gigre of Cannibal Honor: Must consume the brain of an intelligent creature weekly. Must give your true name to anyone who asks it. Cannot imprison anyone. Weakness is a mortal sin. Additionally, you are immune to charms and staggering but holy days are unclean to you.
  6. Gigre of Natal Strength: Must carry a weapon at all times. Must abstain from non-gigre drugs. Cannot take another life, even that of a fly. Abandonment is a mortal sin. Additionally, reduce the chance of miscarriage or complications of childbirth by 75%.
  7. Gigre of Licit Work: May avoid sabbath restrictions. This gigre has fewer commandments, but a weak power.
  8. Gigre of Circumlocution: Must keep all secrets. Must avoid direct sunlight when possible. Cannot tell the truth about yourself. Submission is a mortal sin. Additionally, you can pass through walls but entrapment is unclean to you.
  9. Gigre of the Smiths: Must sleep indoors. Must flagellate self daily (1d4 damage). Vandalism is a mortal sin. Cannot be untrusting. You can extrude tools from your body or transmute one to another, but meditation is unclean to you.
  10. Gigre of Revealed Wisdoms: Must engage in hedonistic acts whenever possible. Must accept all challenges and wagers. You get hunches about whether an act would be for weal and/or woe but firelight is unclean to you
A dose of gigre is of comparable value to a potion or scroll. A gigre recipe is of comparable value to a minor magical item.

Daniel Romanovsky
Finally, I present the updated practitioner. This class is a little more complex than average, since it tracks wisps per day as well as spells. Remember, the average intoxicated person can spend three wisps per day.

Starting skill: drugcrafting
1: See evil, Plenty
2: +1 CD, Smite
3: +1 wisp, Tribulation,
4: +1 CD, Reckoning
  • Chemic Dice: Charisma is your casting ideal. You begin play knowing two footnotes and three random formulae. More formulae can be learned through study. To cast a formula, you invest at least one chemic die. They work like wizard dice invested in wizard spells.
  • Plenty: You can automatically gather enough ingredients to dose one person with any gigre whose recipe you know per day. You start with knowledge of one gigre recipe.
  • See evil: Name three things which would make someone evil by your standards. As an action, you can identify who before you is evil by this definition.
  • Smite: If a foe is evil, you may spend a wisp of gigre to deal an extra +1d6 damage to that target for the rest of a combat.
  • Tribulation: When you lay low an evil foe, you may immediately use one of your formulae or regain one wisp.
  • Reckoning: When you lay low an evil foe, regain a chemic die.
Practitioner Footnotes:
  1. Smell Drugs: range 30'
  2. Secret Combination: magical convince someone you will keep their secret, but only if you intend to.
  3. Alter disease: can direct illnesses to act differently with a test of charisma.
Practitioner formulae:
  1. Divine Lacuna: A single god chosen by the caster cannot see the target. Lasts [dice] days
  2. Wisp: you gain [dice] more wisps of gigre.
  3. Acute Quintessence: The weapon grants +[dice] to Attack. The next hit deals +1d6+[dice] damage, then the spell ends
  4. Alter Self: Change your physical appearance, 2 CD changes voice to match.
  5. Rubbery Body: +3 AC against bludgeoning. Immune to fall damage and similar things. Amazing contortions. Lasts [dice] minutes.
  6. Shrink: For [dice] hours, target becomes half their size.
  7. Adhesive Spittle: ranged attack to stick target in place for [dice] rounds.
  8. Truth paste: when consumed, cannot lie. 2+ CD, must answer all questions.
  9. Torque: automatically fail initiative and move slowly, but roll advantage on physical rolls. Lasts [dice] rounds.
  10. Transparency: +2 AC and +5 stealth for each CD.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

From Ruthanq

There are ten great cities in Holy Selmat. Though no book records it and few guess at its name, there used to be an eleventh. It is a city pulled from memory and from history. All the ambiguous horrors, the ones horrific in their ambiguity, roost there. It is the grave of false hyra-kings and unwoven warlocks, the throne of pregnant pauses and the echo of urgent pawsteps. No rumors exist about it, and those few who purport the theory of its semi-existence do not dare to share their fears with most.

Astral servants still remember the vibrant and strange streets of Ruthanq but most fear to tread there now. To them, it is preferable to forget that knowing smile that lighted upon the faces of its long-gone citizens.

c. Magdelena Mudlaff

You cannot set an adventure in Ruthanq. Instead, if a party sets out to find it, PCs will awake some time later with no memory of that brimming void. Roll on the “Time Spent” table to determine how long this jaunt has cost any adventurers, then on the “Fates” table to see what they have washed back into living memory with. But! Do not announce the results until you check the damage inflicted on injury table. Go to town with descriptions of odd injuries. If the damage is sufficient to kill a PC, their surviving companions might come across them in the next couple of days.

(This was made with the Rat on a Stick notion of HP capped at 20. Note you roll a d6 for the injuries table, and higher numbers require increased damage from Fates rolls.)

d6 Time Spent
  1. 1d4 days.
  2. 1d8+4 days.
  3. 1d4 weeks.
  4. 4d6 weeks.
  5. 1d12 months. Roll twice for the party on the “Fates” table.
  6. 2d20+6 months. Roll twice for the party and each of its members on the “Fates” table.
d20 Fates (Roll once for the party then once for each of its members)
  1. You wake up separated from the main party.
  2. Random magic item. Increase damage 1 step.
  3. Random tome. Test intelligence or increase damage 1 step.
  4. Confused hireling or temporary ally. Test charisma to decrease damage 1 step.
  5. Devoted friend or new spouse (1d4-1 class levels) Decrease damage 1 step
  6. Valuable non-magical item. Increase damage 1 step
  7. Significant item lost or broken. Test strength or increase damage 1 step
  8. Addiction to strange drug. 1d4 doses in your inventory. Test constitution to decrease damage 1 step
  9. Exciting new disease!
  10. Unsettling diary with inscrutable entries. Test wisdom to decrease damage 1 step
  11. Pursued by animals. Test dexterity or increase damage 1 step
  12. Knowledge of unsavory spell
  13. Bundle of sealed letters to cities in the country. Decrease damage 1 step
  14. Tied to a dead body. Test charisma or increase damage 1 step
  15. Apparently self-inflicted mutilation. Test strength or increase damage 1 step
  16. Random double-edged mutation
  17. Slave collar. Left hand burned. Test constitution or increase damage 1 step
  18. Increase or decrease fluency in one language by one step
  19. Lose 1d6 letters from your name. (See this link, at “the wounds are grammatic.”)
  20. Roll twice. Save or increase damage 1 step
d6 injury table (death is disappearance)
  1. Not a scratch
  2. Scar or tattoo
  3. 1d6 damage
  4. 3d6 damage
  5. 1d20 damage
  6. 1d20+5 damage
  7. 2d20+5 damage
  8. 3d20+5 damage

Thursday, May 16, 2019

"'The Philosophy of Composition" in Roleplaying Games, Pt. 2: The Rotting Library

One of my favorite pieces on writing is Edgar Allen Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition," which he wrote for a semiyearly literary magazine. He explains his own perspective on how he writes poetry and fiction. While I don't agree with every claim Poe makes, I do find it a useful perspective.

Read Part 1: Effect

The second part of this series will attempt to use Poe's step-by-step method for composition to make a small dungeon. (Spoiler: I will ultimately decide this is of limited value.)

In the first entry of the series, I focused primarily on Poe's literary theory but much of the essay is detailed instruction on how to write the Raven, his most famous work. I'll run through that quick now, since we'll need the method as well as the theory to make a good go of this experiment.

d12 Steps of Composition

  1. Consideration of extent-- can it be experienced in one sitting, or what?
  2. Choice of the effect to be conveyed-- can it be universally appreciated?
  3. Choice of tone-- can we capture the effect's highest manifestation?
  4. Determining the pivot-- can we apply the same refrain to novel situations?
  5. Determining the character of the pivot-- can we make repeated elements apt to our goals?
  6. Creation of supreme points-- how far can we take the details?
  7. Combining pivots and points-- can we integrate everything smoothly?
  8. Considering the denouement-- what are we building to?
  9. Determining the locale-- can we connect things in an accountable way?
  10. Deliberating on the points-- can we cleave as close as possible to the effect?
  11. Contrasting the fantastic-- can we vary the middle from the ending?
  12. Considering the ending-- can we make the effect transcendent and emblematic?

Poe was definitely a partisan in how to make some of these choices. To him, the best effect is beauty and the best tone is melancholy. We're going to deliberately avoid that in this experiment, since the method should apply even in other cases than those. In Poe's case, "pivots" are literal poetic refrains, and the "character" of the pivot is the literal phonetics of the word that serves as the refrain. e.g. Nevermore.
Art by Harry Clarke

Steps 1-5: Setting Goals
Step one is the consideration of the extent. This step is fairly simple. I want the dungeon to be "experienced" by players in about one session. This can be difficult for a GM to ordain, so it's alright to be very approximate. A larger dungeon in this framework should be considered as a string of stories, which can be difficult in the OSR jaquaying ideal. Not impossible, and worth going into in a later article.

Step two is the choice of the effect. Poe would say that you have to choose "beauty," but I think I'm going to arbitrarily decide to portray "failure" instead. Step three, tone, is much the same. I'm not sure what the highest manifestation of failure is but I think I will express it here with a grateful tone, since that seems poetical to me.

Steps four and five are the "refrain" of the dungeon. This is where Poe would determine that a bird repeating "Nevermore" is tonally appropriate. Since gratitude is the tone we're going for, we want the central pivot of the dungeon to express gratitude. A quick brainstorm turns up: trophies, fan letters, memorials. Let's go with memorials as the pivot of the dungeon, since that seems easy to integrate and poignant.

Step 6: the Bones
Step six the creation of supreme points. We need to find the epitome of failure, express it through memorials, and throw out a lot of different points to express it. Since this is a dungeon, these points need to be game-able-- monsters, NPCs, puzzles, riddles, items, and the like.

d6 Could the epitome of failure be...

  1. a failed invasion of a weaker nation?
  2. hubris that causes great destruction?
  3. the inability to preserve a legacy?
  4. betrayal of your deepest ideals?
  5. extinction
  6. the failure to act at all?
Hmm. I kind of like the inability to preserve a legacy. Some of those other ideas are promising, so we'll keep an eye out to integrate them. Maybe this legacy was a great library of the world's collected knowledge that was chronically mismanaged, so that most of the valuable information eroded away while political appointments of the library's guardians rendered the rest of the collection inane, censored, partisan, and inaccurate. Remember this all has to be in a grateful tone. There can be factions of mournful scholars who've begun to worship the writers of bygone ages, shrines where piles of rot are carefully reconstructed into their previous forms as tomes, bookhunters who go out into the world to restore the collection, requests from foreign scholars who don't know how far the library has fallen requesting access, refugees of the choices made by rulers who relied on the despoiled library (failed invasions! hubris! betrayal!), rows of fig trees slowly dying, appreciative barbarians living among the stacks and hunting animals.
Art by Harry Clarke

Step 7: the Meat
Step 7 is combining the pivots and the points. Here Poe would be figuring out how the mournful lover meets and interacts with the raven's refrain. From step 6 we know that the points revolve around this fallen library. In a sense, this library is a memorial but we can emphasize the pivot even more by placing smaller memorials in the library itself, maybe at the ends of each wing-- a memorial to a great writer or scholar who contributed to that wing's contents. These can be those shrines to book reconstruction. It's around here that we would sketch out any map.

d6 Memorial-Shrines and their Wings
  1. St. Litarsus. A high-ranking priest who was patron to many great treatises. Priests at the shrine have covered everything in sanctifying seals, pulling pages together at random in hopes of revealed wisdom. This wing has piles of former books, with giant bookworms rising when the piles are disturbed.
  2. Alhonsa, the Prince of Ryuset. The controversial conqueror who originally commissioned the library. Scholars at the shrine still trying to answer all the letters and take inventory. This wing is sparsely populated by strange animals.
  3. Belocha. A poetess and critic of the status quo. Barbarians pray here and try to teach themselves how to read. This wing is overrun by nature and un-nature.
  4. Jaymet Calmar. A knight and master of classical, high-status literature. Bookhunters drink from the steam running off the statue and try to un-redact vandalized tomes. This wing has a couple hornet nests and deranged former censors who offer nonsensical, elitist riddles.
  5. Gertrude of Ugen. Anatomist and zoologist. Refugees pile up food and blankets-- a few rotting articles worsen the rest. This wing is not overrun-- it is overrunning the surrounding area. "Where did we store that plague extract?" A literal jungle.
  6. Alhonsa the Great. Descendant of the first Alhonsa, wrote many folios and investigative fiction. Assistant researchers consider taking what books they can, burning the library down, and starting anew. Wing scraped clean, home to radical faction that wants to kill anyone who has visited the library.
Steps 8-12: Climax
Step 8 asks "what are we building to?" What is the culmination of the expedition to the library? This probably involves figuring out the presumed objective. The culmination is the point at which the pivot fully expresses the tone of the effect. In the case of the Raven, this is when the sorrowful lover asks the Raven if he will ever be reunited with his beloved and the raven tells him it will never happen. In the case of the library, the memorials are used to heighten the notion of gratitude despite failure. Maybe the party has been sent to channel a magic ritual through all six memorials at once to reveal a hidden trove of knowledge-- the last gift of the library to the world? This could be an interesting coordination challenge that might require them to enlist the aid of some NPCs if there aren't enough people in the party.

We technically got ahead of ourselves with step 9. Apparently Poe didn't consider where this raven would meet this sorrowful lover until now. I can't really see how to wait on making decisions about the locale until this point for dungeon design, so I would just use this step as an opportunity to make sure that the layout of the dungeon is coming together in more detail. 

Step 10 involves going back to the points we started in step 7 and iterating on them, constant trying to wring as much of the tone and theme out of them as we can. Maybe one of the bookhunter NPCs is covered in tattoos of the names of the fallen, and the books now lost, i.e. a living monument. Maybe the mad censors are only dangerous because they are so inept that their hospitality is dangerous, i.e. personified failure. Maybe the fig trees were a failed attempt to breed fruit which wouldn't attract insects, and not only attracts them but is bitterly poisonous. Maybe every item in the library has a plaque explaining whose donation made its presence possible. You could really iterate on this forever.

In doing this, we're sort of naturally contrasting the fantastic, which is step 11. We're trying to make sure that no one detail overshadows the climax of the library, and that there is enough variation that the whole place doesn't feel like a gratitude-and-failure theme park. Here we can introduce contrasts. The ungrateful mercenary. The idealistic engineer revitalizing the card catalogue.

We end on step 12. Notably, this is not the climax of the story. That's step 8, the denouement. This is the parting impression the effect leaves, when it becomes fully emblematic and explicit. The entire library should be communicating the effect as loudly as possible, but its here that the tone is more definitely stated. In this case, maybe the spirits of the the six founders of the library's wings arrive to thank the party for their aid or to commiserate with their failure. That could be an interesting conversation, and it brings the memorials full circle.

Reviewing the Method
Well I certainly enjoyed myself, and I think Poe's steps have helped us make a perfectly nice dungeon. There's a good thematic consistency and trying to follow the steps in order gave the creative process a nice regimen. On the other hand, the whole thing is finicky and a little needless. Probably I could abbreviate the process to half as many elements and lose almost nothing. I'm also not sure that the rotting library could be easily played through in one session, so on that goal I definitely failed.

I might want to try to do this one more time in a less theoretical context. Probably if I tried to use it to plan out my next Holy Selmat session I would lay off some of the intricacies and constrain myself to the plausible for what the party is likely to do.

I still think that focus on effect is good practice, and keeping some broad themes in mind can confer a pleasant consistency but Poe's philosophy of composition is just a little too rigid.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

"'The Philosophy of Composition" in Roleplaying Games, Pt. 1: Effect

One of my favorite pieces on writing is Edgar Allen Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition," which he wrote for a semiyearly literary magazine. He explains his own perspective on how he writes poetry and fiction. While I don't agree with every claim Poe makes, I do find it a useful perspective.

d12 Notions in Poe's "Philosophy of Composition"

  1. Start by deciding on the effect you intend to evoke, usually at the denouement. It's not a striking event but a striking feeling that makes good stories.
  2. An evocative effect has an ordinary occurrence and peculiar tone, a peculiar occurrence and ordinary tone, or both a peculiar occurrence and tone. 
  3. The steps of composition are not born of literary frenzy but deliberate and traceable steps.
  4. A work must be experienced in one sitting to have unity of effect-- this is why poems and short stories are preferable to novels. Long pieces are just strings of short pieces.
  5. You should only write poems about Beauty-- the effect which elevates the soul.
  6. Use the best tools available to achieve your intended effect.
  7. Melancholy is the most legitimate of the poetical tones.
  8. Refrains are more effective when they are used in varied contexts.
  9. Every word of The Raven was written to maximize melancholy and beauty.
  10. The death of a beautiful woman is the most beautiful possible subject of poetry.
  11. No poet in centuries has though of doing anything original.
  12. At the end, the effect's undercurrent should become transcendent.

The first part of this series (?) will assess the use of effect in storytelling and its application to roleplaying games.

Tell me this isn't an OSR PC. Art by Harry Clarke

Poe says that core of any story is its effect-- the central feeling or perception that the story is built around. In The Pit and the Pendulum, this is the apprehension of the blade swinging slowly through the protagonist. In The Tell-tale Heart, this is the paranoiac frenzy with with the protagonist reveals his crime. Other, longer works have several effects strung together, and it is often the effect of those heightened moments that are most memorable and commendable. When I think of the Lord of the Rings, I think of the intractable council of Elrond and the weight of Frodo's offer to carry the Ring, or I think of the terrible fatigue of crawling through Mordor. When I think of Les Miserables, I think of that graceful moment when the priest refuses to turn in Valjean, or I think of the certain and Utopian fervor that buoys a doomed revolution.

Poe describes a writer as a deliberate and conscious composer, who sets out a definite structure to their work. Obviously, this is not apt for roleplaying games, where meaningful choices are shared by the players and all outcomes are uncertain. However, I think that GMs who focus on preparing effect can be successful:

d4 Reasons to Focus on Effect

  1. Preparing only enough material to create a literary effect is efficient, because you will definitely use all your prepared material for each item the players encounter. 
  2. Literary effect is often impressive to players, since it seems deliberate and difficult to contrive without actually being so. 
  3. Aiming for effect focuses you on what makes your creative ideas interesting, and therefore can boost your creative output.
  4. This method is especially apt to weekly stories: it does not require special inspiration and it keeps each session memorable.
I've noticed that a lot of OSR writers actually summarize room encounters in dungeons by prepping for effect. Instead of a large paragraph of mostly irrelevant details, it is seen as good practice to write a few sentence fragments that evoke the exact occurrence and tone of the encounter. This recognizes that a description is useless if a GM doesn't know what to do with it.

In the next entry to this series, I will try to write a dungeon (or quick adventure or whatever) using the method Poe laid out for The Raven. Obviously, I'll have to make adaptions where he goes into phonetics and meter. I will also probably not restrict myself to only writing about the death of a beautiful woman.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Iron Wants to Kill You

This is the first in a series of informational briefs of some of the 90 gods in the Holy Selmat setting.

Belief: Ironism. Adherent: Worshipper of Iron. Collective: All Irony
Epithets: The evil metal, Starmetal
Secret Epithets: Endfather, Conclusion, The Calling One, Sinking
Holy City: formally none, in principle any desecrated holy city of another god.
Holy Symbols: a wavy dagger, a falling star, anything made of iron, a bracelet with 26 beads, a dowsing rod.

Almost everyone on Earth can tell you about iron— that rare metal that when forged is stronger than even bronze, and which severs the soul of all those it kills. Kings execute traitors and other wicked men with iron weapons. This is not out of malice but because they fear facing them again in the afterlife. Because it destroys soulstuff, it is one of the only effective weapons against demons, angels, and ghosts.

Long ago, Holy Selmat itself was enthralled to the Priests of Iron, harsh rulers whose only and most sacred life was the destruction of souls. Their reign ended when the prophet Elijah washed up on the shore, passed their impossible tests via miracle, then called the tide two miles inland to drown them. They were succeeded by the Waste-Lords, who were also quite bad but not nearly as ideological. The Priests of Iron are likely originators of any module-dungeon I would want to incorporate, since they are ancient, they don’t need to adhere to Biritist ideas of what’s normal, and they were malicious enough to do whatever evil thing happened in a given dungeon.

Now, that god called Iron, which is iron, is largely powerless and entirely inanimate, more so a malicious intent than an active threat. Still, just as anyone holding an item made of mithril is holding the blood of Mithras, so is anyone holding an iron weapon holding an evil and ancient god.

The cosmic servant of Iron is a many-limbed beast in the void called Nemesis, who nudges chunks of iron out of their slumber so they may crash into the world. Some say that once all the iron is collected on the Earth, the god Iron shall walk among mortals and bisect every soul. Here’s hoping.

Iron weapons deal +1 damage and bypass any damage resistance. Iron armor grants +2 AC and is difficult to sunder. Some characters have an “iron resistance” ability. This is expressed as a percentage and indicates the probability that, if slain with an iron weapon, their soul will actually survive. The vast majority of people have zero iron resistance.

Some spells learned by servants of Iron:

Dowse: while sleeping, you are vexed to nightmares, visions of the nearest source of iron within [dice]2 miles. If you are not currently in a city, this is probably buried underground. You know the most direct route to the iron.

Execute: When you execute a bound person, regain 1 HP for each fatal wound inflicted, and gain a +[dice] bonus to your next save that day.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Selmati Verse and Writings

When I began my Holy Selmat campaign, one of the players requested a small collection of sayings and writings that they might be familiar with related to the ever-important faith of the party. I was reminded of it while reading this Coins and Scrolls article. It's a neat trick to include textual artifacts like that, especially if you find yourself apt to it, especially if it slots nicely into a campaign theme of textual research.

I won't post most of the readings I offered my players, in part because many of them are blatant rip-offs of Hebrew and Persian sayings or some slightly altered poems. However, below you will find some of the remainder. If the campaign ever concludes, I'll put together a post linking to all the summarized texts that the party has studied. In writing those I got to grapple with the lore in the setting that most interested me and which informed much of what the party has interacted with, though indirectly and changed by years.

The following represents works made in Holy Selmat, as well as by those who left to the continent of Niv, and as such spans a variety of styles and contexts.

(See also Riddles of Holy Selmat and In-Character Monster Manual)
“A man may fall many times and get up, if the Translator shall help him. But if he shall attempt to stand on his own, he shall remain fallen and not know why.” -Harlan, prince of Sikoly

“The number 17 is a slanted number, like the roofs of rain-slicked climes, in the style of those who live there. We derive this from the sum of 10+7, where the stability in ten removes some of the potential of the seven, but also from 20-3, where the imperial number (see section 20,) is deprived of an essentializing element. A scholar also sees here 15+2, 12+5, and even 7+7+3, where the power of essentially low-glancing numbers adds into something that is grand without raising its glance. But in these we see also no humble mien. It is a watchtower number, not a penitent. It is a witness to crime...”
-the last section of the uncompleted manuscript of the Book of Aderyn.

"It all fades and falls away
Night-ink seeps through frabjous day
Where all are touched, when all cry out,
The tears, the tearing, the clout of fray.
Each mother bears a smaller child
Each city sacked grows dry and wild
Tongues confuse, all fusion fails
Covered idols rise, profane, defile.
The names of God run thin and strange
Fools the shibboleths exchange
None know the alien, ally themselves
Against forgotten forms, they change."
-Tradition, by Jehu of Jamarta

“10 Beetles and justice are hidden.
Beetles and justice are myriad.
Often are truths occulted
Beneath the rock and the root.

11 Beetles and justice are hidden.
Beetles and justice are many to be forgotten.
Often are truths hidden though they sun on rocks
And serve as roots.”
-The Fates of God, 21:10-11

“315. With one hand you grab at your fresh wisdom, and with the other you grab at your brothers’ throats.”
-the 2,000 offenses against Who Has Forgotten

“The good you do today will not excuse you tomorrow.”
-Harlan, prince of Sikoly, recited at all Sommelier meetings

"An old cat’s stare, a spider’s hair,
The grease from a witch’s frying pan,
The facts and sums from slates of scum
Is how one makes a chemic man.
You need a sad and empty heart
You need a sad and scary plan
To ask the devil for his chart
He made to make a chemic man.
You need a will as strong as God’s
Unaccounted in his plan
The fuzz from pregnant belly buttons
To make that cruel and chemic man."
-To Make a Chemic Man, child's song