Tuesday, 29 November 2016

the depths of a treacherous mire

‘High bogs are acidic and nutrient-poor, eroding metal, leaching bone and leaving one German bog body, Damendorf Man, as little more than a flattened envelope of slithery skin.’ - from this magnificently information-dense b(l)og post.

They are buried deep, driven into the rich, aromatic peat upright, like the gateposts of the high feasting halls, intact, naked, the bruises already blossoming from the halter round their

necks, the rust-coloured water already seeping into their vertical tombs. When the turf is piled back on top, mistletoe is seeded there, to mark the spot before it passes from the memory of the living, and a stone is marked.

Seventy-seven years later, the body is dug up. The bones are gone: the organs and the viscera have withered: the skin is perfect, dark, supple, cured. The mistletoe and sphagnum moss fed by the body’s nutrients since its interment are burned, and the ashes are fed to the crumpled sack, its face frozen in an aspect of torture, its jaw prised open, never to shut again. It rasps: it jerks: it rises, manlike but empty, a skin pristine and shrivelled and unsupported, dead and undead, the utter opposite of a skeleton.

It makes no sound. It needs no sustenance. It is utterly obedient. It is impervious to liquid, to heat, to cold, to crushing. It twists and bends and folds: it can be carried in a pack, it can slip itself beneath the crack of a warped door, it can curl its body altogether round a throat and fix its ever-closed eyes on bulging, open ones: and perhaps as it looks into them and
sees the light there die, it remembers how its own died as the peat was stacked back over its head and the chanting was muffled forever.

Bog body/Moorleiche/Damendorfer: as a ghast, resistance to cold and bludgeoning damage, can pass through any space 1in wide and fold itself up to approx. the size of a human head. Grapples and suffocates. Bog witches and the like hang them in gruesome storecupboards until they need to set them on their enemies.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

The seven lamps of Madame Sphora's architecture

The city of Chirica cannot be mapped, because it cannot be finished: it bleeds out into silent avenues and massing townhouses and still canals further than anyone has ever known. Those who try to travel beyond its safer centre find themselves disoriented, confounded, and soon they are lost forever.

But within its centre, a map – or maps – are possible. In the traditional telling, the city has eight great districts, two at its heart and six fanned around them in a half-circle: and on the other side of this half-circle, facing the squares and facades of the city's centre, the sea, even more endless and unforgiving than the city.
Of the eight districts we will speak in more detail another time: but of the works of Karint Sphora, whose name we have mentioned already, there is this to be said, that in each part of the mappable city she left one masterwork (of what she may have built in the unmapped city, we shall not speak):

In Vasari, the city's busiest district - though even in Vasari some streets sit silent for hours and days on end, and some doors crust over with rot and neglect - she built the Royal Theatre, in the days when there still was a royalty to attend it. It is said that the false-perspective scenery that recedes behind the stage's elaborate setting continues on for ever, twisting smaller and smaller into a perfect but unreadable map of the unmappable city.

In the Pazir, where the city's Elvish families conduct their lives of stately savagery, she built the Tower of the Moon to a set of ornate geometrical specifications provided her by a self-declared prophet of the elves: but since her death and his, it has stood empty and collapsing.

In Belgarod, where the business of the city is conducted and confounded by goblin middlemen, their four-jointed fingers counting out worn and lustreless coins, she built the Nail Market of elaborate, unsurpassed iron.

In Rusala, where the cold-eyed agnates have their half-sunken palaces, she channelled the meeting point of sluggish canals into the Ninefold Fountain, where the symbolism of the statuary is debated to this day.

In Amadoro, where the ashborn debate and philosophise, Sphora raised up the Academy. its endless vaults running along one of Amadoro's smoke-filled squares, its endless rooms inside as narrow and as repetitive as the arguments of their occupiers.

In Liuvecca, where the gnomes sustain what little industry Chirica knows, carving and crushing and creating, she was paid handsomely to erect a solemn guildhall, a godless temple to industry and labour and its joyless fruits.

In the Carazzo, where the vampire families wait out their ceaseless lives with parodic diversions, she was commissioned to build an opera house on neutral, unhallowed ground, where rivals could meet and plot against a bone-white backdrop and a nightmarish accompaniment.

And in Opravad, the neglected core of the city, on one of Chirica's few true pieces of rising ground - on a spot, it is said, where the lines drawn from her seven other great works would converge - she began to build - for herself - a vast mausoleum of impossible scale and disturbing style, wherein she was interred long before it could be finished. It is widely thought it cannot be finished: but she was not without disciples, and they themselves were not unfollowed, and so the work has gone on, gradually rising into Chirica's leaden sky and to an uncertain, imponderable goal.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

'a world of dissolving walls and pop-up entryways'

I'm not sure if I've ever read a book more relevant to D&D, and more shot through with its spirit, than Geoff Manaugh's A Burglar's Guide to the City: a book which at no point mentions, directly or indirectly, D&D or role-playing games (though it does touch on computer games) and yet seems like a gift from Gary himself. Buy it, read it and then buy up all the copies so that your rogue can never get their hands on one, or else you will find DMing a nightmarish challenge from now on.

Manaugh is an architecture critic and blogger and the book, as you would think, is about the ways burglars use, misuse and abuse architecture and urban planning to do their dirty work. Burglars specifically: it's very thorough on the definitions of burglary ('the unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft', per the FBI) and then on the the ways this definition can be warped and exploited: less my criminals than by law enforcement, who have successfully expanded burglary from its original, narrow meaning of robbing a private residence at night to the one quoted above that encompasses, say, cars. As an architecture book – or, really, an urbanism book - it's breezy, joyous, maybe a little repetitive of its central thesis but forgivably so.

But as an RPG sourcebook, it's a treasure trove of how you ought to think about designing buildings and cities to be adventurable: on the one hand, a guide to how to make them thief-proof and how to think one or two steps ahead of the party, but on the other hand also a doorway to thinking about how to make a city maximally adventurable, maximally challenging, maximally entertaining. Is your setting city – like LA, whose freeway network is uniquely useful to escaping bank robbers with getaway vehicles – the kind of place with wide boulevards and lots of vehicles (whether they be cars or horses or sedan chairs or hoverboards): or is it like Berlin, where the sandy soil is unusually accommodating of tunnels under buildings and where the wealthy would be well-advised to reinforce the undersides of their estates? These are not things you might have thought about before, but you will now: just as you'll think about whether there's a central repository of buildings plans that your
Marm Mandelbaum, who ran a truly
amazing burglary school in 19th
century New York City.
party could bluff their way into (there should be! But it should be hard to access and a lot of the documents there should be out of date).

It's equally full of details on heist plans (some brilliant, some farcical) that are maybe more useful to players than DMs, but maybe not: maybe your players could get approached by someone promising work and asking that they wear a certain uniform and show up outside a certain bank at a certain time, at which point a master thief will pitch up dressed like everybody else, rob the bank, and flee, using the fact that they arranged for the presence of a dozen duplicates of themselves to cover their escape (this happened. Dude used Craigslist).

But that – and many other such anecdotes, enough to make a decent d20 table of heist plans - is also a taster of why you must never, ever let your players get hold of this book. It is full of knowledge they could use to absolutely gut your carefully planned campaign, and it must be guarded from them like the Book of Vile Darkness.

Unless, of course, the book exists in the game, and the prize for successfully finding and stealing the Manual of Master Burglars is that you give your players an actual copy of it to read...

Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Gardens of the Colossus

As you probably know, the Colosseum in Rome – which as a building and institution is easily transferable to any kind of setting - had all manner of hidden depths and internal tunnels: as well as
the possibility of having your party enslaved and made to fight in it, with all the attendant risk and potential imperial favour that brings, it's a kind of pre-packaged dungeon (though it's oddly hard to find good plans of its innards – these are ok). Imagine its lower tunnels, light filtering down in harsh columns amid the gloom, the thrum of the crowd above, the narrow passageways filled with restive slaves and caged beasts and caches of weird gladiatorial equipment.

And also with plants? Admittedly not during its gladiatorial heyday, but subsequently when it fell into its equally dungeon-friendly medieval dereliction – a hermit built a chapel in there – the Colosseum became famous for the immense variety of plants growing across its vast structure. Botanists made exhaustive studies of the hundreds of varieties of plants there, concluding that the combination of sunlight, shelter, and large amounts of undisturbed growing space were ideal for a profusion of plants otherwise rare in central Rome: pears, capers, strawberries and more. There was also, though, a more romantic – though now generally disbelieved – explanation for the profusion: that the seeds of exotic plants had been brought there on the living bodies of the yet more exotic animals imported from across the empire for the games: elephants (3500 during Augustus' reign!), giraffes, lions, bears, all of
them unwittingly giving their lives to smuggle the seeds of a geographically impossible garden centuries hence.

Imagine it: at the centre of the great – but less great than it was in ancient times – metropolis, the seat of massively wealthy theocrats and endlessly intriguing bluebloods, sits the vast, layered shell of the Colosseum, the tunnels beneath it unmapped, the walls festooned with alien plants: flowers with no names in the local languages, fruits untasted for centuries, trees twisting like smoke across the blood-soaked stones. Imagine the vegetable wealth in there, the potions and poisons that could be produced: imagine the various local figures willing to pay the party to go in there and get them. All those stories – the circle of druids who worship on moonless nights within the great arena, the hauntings by hundreds upon hundreds of slaughtered men and beasts, the way the plants themselves seem not to stay still from night to night – they can't be more than fairy tales, surely?

Thursday, 17 November 2016

ashen-faced and ashen-hearted

Keith Thomson
The society of Chirica is made up of men, and gnomes, and elves; and of goblins, and vampires, and demons; and of homunculi, and the merpeople known as agnates; and of the ashborn. The ashborn are the quiet petit bourgeois of Chirica: they are accountants to the guilds, majordomos to the noble houses, clerks to the warehouses, modest, respectable wheels in the vast, stuttering, rust-caked engine of the city.

They look not unlike men. They dress neatly, soberly, in dark colours set against the icy pale of their hairless skins and in concert with the black orbs of their eyes: although, in darkness, a faint flicker of coppery light can be seen therein. They lead lives of determined respectability amid the creeping entropy of Chirica, doing the bidding of their employers and retiring home - generally to narrow houses in the well-ordered streets of the district called Amadoro - to discuss philosophy. Phenomenology, hermeneutics, epistemology, the more abstract the better.

They have no gender, though they don and doff the gendered styles of other peoples as they please. They do not eat, and drink nothing but salt water. They are impervious to extremes of heat and cold. They do not breathe. They are chill and papery to the touch. Their grip is strong, glacial, numbing. When they die - after a half century or so, perhaps - their skin and their doubtful flesh flakes away as if on a sudden
wind, and in their absence is left a wrinkled, coal-black thing, like a tree root or a shrivelled lizard. It writhes, gently. It is hot to the touch.

Other ashborn come for it. They carry it - carefully, carefully - to one of the great brick cones that rises above Amadoro, spitting embers and smoke endlessly into the dark sky. Close to, through the archway at the base of the great chimney, it can be seen: the massed-up banks of blazing coal, the shimmering roil of unbearable heat rising from it. Bound demons bank up the fire endlessly, creeping around its margins: and in its centre move a handful of white-hot forms, crawling like hallucinations through the conflagration. They grow, gradually, and after a span of years, their forms increasingly elongated, manlike, their bodies beginning to cool away from incandescence, they are tempted out by their brethren, out from the heat, and stumble into the world, into frock coats and bookkeeping and philosophy.

They insist they remember nothing of who they have been before.

Mechanically, ashborn are ghouls: their larvae are magmins. They like doing their jobs and talking philosophy and staying out of trouble (not easy, in Chirica). They’re basically 18th century Germans who are also quasi-undead, quasi-insectoid beings made of ossified thermal energy.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Passage of Power

I've written about Florence and its deep D&Dability before, but here is a thing that I turned up while reading about covered and inhabited bridges for my Chirica setting:

An entire elevated corridor, almost a kilometre long, built by Giorgio Vasari (longtime and mostly deserving villain of Zak's) to join together two Medici properties that were, among other things, on two different sides of the river. The commitment of the Medicis to their creepiness and to leaving a decent dungeoneering legacy is really jaw-dropping, especially considering that this is a passage that passes through a priceless and highly heistable collection of paintings, crawls laboriously around the tower of a rival family that wouldn't let them take a shortcut, dances over the shops lining the bridge (the Medicis had the butchers kicked out so they wouldn't stink up the passage, and replaced them with goldsmith,s who are again highly heistable: centuries later Mussolini installed windows so Hitler could enjoy the view), passes through a church so the family could observe Mass privately (and so your party can shoot poison darts at a bishop), branches off into a side entrance in a grotto in some artificial gardens and then finally ends inside one of the world's ugliest and most villainous buildings, the Palazzo Pitti, which, I regret to inform you, looks like this:

This is why people who think the Medicis are responsible for the very
concept of beauty are wrong and bad.
I really can't think of any reason you wouldn't drop this into one of your cities. It's not alone, either: different power-centres can have different ones. The Pope has one in Rome that sadly doesn't cross a river and doesn't intersect with many other buildings but is still quite impressive:

Particularly given that two of the buildings it does intersect with are St Peter's and the mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian, subsequently extensively retrofitted into a Papal castle.

Quite aise from the neverending fun of a good corridor fight, these things are like portable wormhole carriers in a more scifi game: they warp people around the city in exciting and risky ways. You could have a city of intrigue and decay where passages like this slink over and under one another and guards patrol them endlessly trying to ensure nobody is drilling from into another; or one where they really are (quasi-)wormholes, sorcerously maintained and liable to implode at any moment; or one where they pass through spaces nobody has accessed for centuries, sudden chasms and walled-up side passages like the Paths of the Dead. True, deep-level dungeoneering without ever having to leave the Duke's palace...

Thursday, 10 November 2016

what have they done to the sky?

Pretend this caption is
in German, I guess.
And finally (for now) the 3rd of my posts about the settings I'm presently pitching to my players for our next campaign. This is for a nasty, high pressure, high-body count, careful-tracking-of-when-characters-last-ate kind of campaign.

The Starving Lands. Post-apocalyptic early modern northern Europe, sort of. Germany during/after the 30 Years’ War, but much, much worse. Famine, plague, constant and competing millenarian cults: the worship of death. Cannibalism. Witches and the suspicion of witches. The collapse of order, the rise of petty tyrants, the weird whisperings of liberty. Demons, hermits, mercenaries, exquisite corpses. Alchemists, minor princelings, false prophets, Giftschranken, Wunderkammern, systematising insanity. Huge wolf-packs, and werewolves, and men crueller than wolves. Ghouls. Flagellants. Meteor showers started it all, wrecked the planet. Now there are huge, floating rocks, mountain-sized, drifting through haywire magnetism, hundreds of feet off the ground. The sea has risen and swamped the land. Fish-men with cold eyes and delusions of conquest, stalking huge swamps where steeples and turrets hover above the stagnant water. Ornate, baroque armour. Unreliable fire-arms. Strange portents and blood-red sunsets. Chaos, and cruelty, and opportunity. Hunger.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

lies and spiders

Per my post the other day about a Himalayan setting, I am in the middle of trying to settle with my players on a setting and style for a new campaign, so I'm gonna throw some other setting paragraphs up here once in a while until we reach a decision. I've posted about this one before.

Chirica. Renaissance Venice meets Kafka’s Prague. Paranoia, plotting, assassination, surrealism. Monochrome. Decadent but not lavish, grandiose but not extravagant, baroque but not playful. Vampires, asylums, canals, empty windows overlooking crooked alleyways. Stagnant water. Masks. Clocks. Mirrors. Secret police. Assassination. Rats. Graveyards. Escherian architecture. Underpopulation. Stains. Mould. Cracks. Impossible geographies. Rotting libraries. Dry wells, with things living in them. Silver, but no gold. Pain, but no gore. Ash, but no flame. Fallen snow, but never falling snow. Sewers. Spiders. An infinite city, almost dead, almost empty, seething with plots and counter-plots and impossible things crawling beneath a low, pale sun and a whispering moon.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

the tao of atom-fucking

I could write a dozen posts on Doctor Strange and its failings but I am doing my best to restrict myself b/c many of these potential posts have nothing to do with D&D. But some of them do - and, like, it’s obviously not coincidence that Strange is maybe my favourite comics character (almost certainly my favourite Marvel character) and that I am a D&D dork. 

Basically, the film is just another superhero movie which, fine, whatever, but it thereby throws away the joys of Strange and the infinite possibilities he offers - by way of being a near-omnipotent mage - for doing all kinds of much weirder shit. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Strange’s fight scenes. There are, obviously, numerous such scenes in the film, and they all involve either two (or sometimes three or four) people whaling on each other with martial arts-y sticks and staves (not even gonna get into the race stuff here, it has been better covered by others elsewhere) or two (or sometimes three or four) people whaling on each other with magical energy condensed into martial arts-y sticks and staves. On a couple of occasions this happens in weird spatial/geographical contexts, though nothing weirder than in, say, Inception (the corridor fight from which is shamelessly ripped off) and generally these weird spatial effects are a kind of generalised hazard rather than anybody’s individual tactic. This while most of the parts of the movie that aren’t men in tunics smacking each other with sticks is men in tunics talking about their fathomless, reality-warping powers.
Like, how little thought do you have to give to scripting a movie about powerful sorcerers to decide that they would interact through spanking each other? And not even from a distance! Hand-to-hand, these guys, all the way. Disappointing. And yet, have we not all been guilty of this too, within our games?

‘Battle magic’ - mage armour, magic weapon, Mordenkainen’s sword - seems cheap to me, Mage armour above all, the way it becomes as automatic for wizards as remembering to put on underwear. Why are you a wizard if all you want to do is use your wizardry to hit stuff? Same question for clerics who are positively encouraged by their patrons to hit stuff with actual weapons and to wear actual armour - your god hath not laid up iron in the earth that you might make blunt weapons from faith instead. There are slight limits on this stuff imposed by concentration, of course, but these limits are not really sufficient.

There is room, of course, for the more inventive, combined-arms kind of battle magic, which actually rewards thoughtful play. This is the approach encouraged by the arcane trickster, the eldritch knight, certain understandings of the sorcerer - well and
good, though the monk suggests that this kind of thing doesn’t really require magic as much as it does a more broadly tricksy approach to combat. But this is the kind of thing I can get behind, the kind of thing one might actually get into the arcane for - the momentary stutter in time that bends you beneath a swinging blade, the crack of sourceless sound that distracts the thug behind you, the twist of wrist a dozen degrees beyond the possible to reach - and
cave in - the knee of the ogre. This is a discipline beyond the kind of spectral sword slinging that is literally a pale imitation of actual hand-to-hand combat.

Of course, this is also not what two reality-warping, atom-fucking masters of the arcane would do if they found themselves duelling. A true wizards’ duel would not be about subtly assisted martial arts, no more than it would be about neon suits of armour and lances made of unbreakable ice, or whatever. It would also not be about lobbing pyrotechnics at one another (or about yelling ‘Expelliarmus’).

A duel between true atom-fuckers would take place in ways and forms beyond comprehension and observation: it would be fought in averted timestreams and through the manipulation of intention and up and down dozens of ostensibly unrelated failsafe avenues seeded across the theoretical battlefield. Its participants might never sight each other, like the great battles of the Pacific War, and the set-pieces and traps of it might continue to spring each other long after both duellists are dead. Entire workings would go by in sorcerously compressed timestreams before rejoining reality only to discover they had been pre-empted by geological gambits that reworked the theoretical underpinnings of an alchemical calculation made three centuries ago. Apprentices would labour mightily at
THIS is your fucking master of the unseen arts.
diversions never knowing who they were diverting or what they were diverting them from: some of them might, in time, learn that they had unwittingly been working the true seam of the war all along. It would be like the very finest John le Carre novels, only subtler. There would be no flashing lights.

That’s the kind of film Doctor Strange should have been. Of course, it’s harder to get your players playing this way, not least because there are always party members who aren’t mages. Hence the arcane trickster-level combats, which are much more game-sized. But just because your players can’t be protagonists in a duel of this nature, doesn’t mean they can’t get mixed up in one...

Monday, 31 October 2016

A Stranger in the Mountains of Heaven

Nicholas Roerich (see also my header image)

Increasingly I find that I am not that interested in the pseudo-Euro-Russian parts of the Vyrhrad setting I have batted about here in the past and am only really engaged with the question of what is east of there: of pseudo-Central Asia/Himalayas/Turkestan/Inner Asia/whatever, with significant hat-tips to Udan-Adan and Yoon-Suin. So, more of that from here on in. The existing Vyrhrad stuff I will incorporate or not as I see fit. I’m calling it Kin Tzeh for now (though I’m not quuuite happy somehow with that), and if I had to describe it in one overstuffed paragraph it would be this one:

Kin Tzeh. Fantasy Himalayas. Mountains and monasteries. The Roof of the World. High, clear lakes. Mountain dwarves with long spears and butter tea and ice crystals in their beards. Yetis. Prayer flags, prayer wheels. Yak-men. Impossibly ancient and wise dragons curled beneath pristine glaciers. Tiger-demons and eagle-spirits. Stupas. Salamanders. Mellified men. Shamanism. Sky-iron, sky-burials. Silk and bronze. Archery and martial arts. More valleys than you can visit in a life-time, and a new culture in every valley. Horses, mammoths, snow leopards. Mummies. Salt flats, blinding white in the glare of the unclouded sun, even more dazzling than the snowy slopes above them. Burial mounds and their inhabitants. Nomads. The king in his high-walled palace, his politicking ministers, the powerful monasteries and their silent succession struggles, the local warlords, the cave near the village, the creature in it, the tribute you pay to it. The spirits of the great mountains.

James Gurney

Thursday, 27 October 2016

the village and the village

just another bullshit day in feudalism city
This is a ‘village’. Yawn. ‘The village’ is a key campaign location, and being able to come up with a quick and interesting one is a useful skill, but villages are very static: occasionally someone has something nasty in a rootcellar or some social event goes rapidly south, but mostly it’s somewhere to loop back to between dungeons, somewhere quirky NPCs dole out quests and grumpy innkeepers provide rest, recuperation and gossip. If fights do happen, they’re generally narrow ones: they happen in the rootcellar or in the inn during the wedding feast or in the town square, which is mostly featureless, with maybe a well that you can push the werwolf down if you outmanoeuvre her. The village is the anti-dungeon, a scattering of individual rectangular spaces that mostly never even need mapping or even describing, an area where the constant mental calculations of a good adventuring party are basically pointless. Yawn.

This is a tulou – a kind of fortified, ring-shaped building, several stories high: most of them were built by the Hakka people in Fujian, south-eastern China, for the usual obvious defensive reasons (and many of them are still inhabited). You're gonna want to google them a bit more to get a sense of their of their massive scale and presence.

Planwise, they look something like this:

And this is a pueblo – a form of sprawling, abode-built structure, often partially underground: built in the south-western USA by various Native American groups often broadly called Puebloan peoples (many of these too are still inhabited). You're gonna want to google these to to understand their diversity and their organic, agglutinative feel.

Planwise, a typical historic one looked something like this:

Despite the total cultural separation of the people who built these structures, and the fact that they look and are extremely different from one another as buildings, the tulou and the pueblo have something in common beyond still being in use: they are both simultaneously a single building and an entire village. Now we’re talking. These villages are the anti-anti-dungeon: they are constant potential dungeons, ready to kick off into (literally) wall-to-wall chaos at any time. An encounter here becomes a claustrophobic chase through a succession of rooms, filled with panicking civilians and a rapidly shifting selection of props and arenas.

The pueblos, for instance, have regular large round chambers: these are kivas, ceremonial spaces
Many pueblo buildings have T-shaped doors. Theories abound.
where an audience could easily be gathered around the sides to watch an impromptu duel. Pueblos also have - hard to show on these maps - ladders reaching between the rooms to form different floors, with routes popping in and out of spaces that don’t really conform to our senses of ‘public/private’: a fight in a pueblo would be a constant literal experience of snakes and ladders. Some of them also have culturally specific niftiness like built-in macaw pens (!), but the cultural specifics are less the point than the massive potential for swashbuckling, high-intensity fun inside one of these things.

Same goes for the tulou, which is a kind of natural amphitheatre, as well as a set of terraces that are the dream of a party with a grappling hook and a can-do attitude, as well as of NPCs with crossbows. Equally, the insides of one - an endless loop of rooms encased between two massive stone walls - is a chase through flimsy interior partitions that goes on forever.

Both of these can also function as a ‘standard’ village, because as mentioned the physicality of a
There are also multi-tulou clusters. Boom, megadungeon.
standard village doesn’t matter much until it suddenly does. Conversations with the village priest can happen perfectly well in one section of the tulou: the suspiciously wealthy shepherd has a room in the pueblo like anyone else. And as the very different origins of these two show - there are all manner of other examples too, from jungle longhouses to this town in Alaska - you can put a one-building village into any kind of cultural analogue: fantasy pseudo-Germany would be massively improved by giant half-timbered barns housing c100 intertwined wenches and yeomen. Down with the dungeon-village binary! Every space is a dungeon!

Monday, 24 October 2016

A raven speaks to heaven

Did you know that 9th century Turkic shamans came up with a d4-based divination system that you can straight up use in your games right now today? They did! The Irk Bitig (“Book of Omens’) is exactly that, using 3 sequentially rolled d4s to generate a fortune and a prognostication for it. Like so (further commentary below):

Summary of the interpretation
A white-spotted falcon perches in a sandalwood tree.
A woman drops her mirror in a lake.
distressing and very bad
A single meadowsweet shrub multiplies to become many thousand plants.
A man encounters a god who wishes him plentiful livestock and long life.
The khan went hunting and caught a roe buck.
A bear and a boar fight together, and are both injured.
A golden-headed snake.
A slave speaks to his master; a raven speaks to heaven.
A fawn is without grass and water.
A camel is stuck in a marsh, and is eaten by a fox.
An old ox is bitten by ants.
Chicks, fawns and children lost in the fog are found safe after three years.
A hawk pounces on a rabbit, but it injures its claws and the rabbit escapes.
A roan horse and a bay horse are made to run until they are exhausted.
A tiger returns to its den after finding some prey.
khan rules a stable country, and has many good men at his court.
A man arrives with good news.
yargun (?) deer climbs the mountains during the summer.
A fat horse is stolen.
A girl's lover has died, and the water in her pail has frozen.
painful to start with, and good later
The Son of Heaven sits on a golden throne.
A white male camel.
A roan horse is fettered and cannot move.
A stallion summers beneath the nut trees, and winters beneath the trees where the birds roost.
It rains and the grass grows.
A horse that is lost in the desert finds grass to eat and water to drink.
A raven is tied to a tree.
A tent is in good condition.
very good
chieftain sees a white mare, a white camel and the third princess giving birth.
very good
A leopard yawns in the reeds.
A khan returns victorious from battle.
When a man is depressed and the sky is cloudy the sun comes out.
A blind foal tries to suckle at a stallion.
A yoke of oxen harnessed to a plough cannot move.
Heaven decrees that a slave girl becomes a queen.
A big house burns down.
A son who argued with his parents runs away and later comes back home.
Something to do with not making a "year stink" (?) or a "month go bad" (?).
A white-spotted cow gives birth to a white-spotted male calf.
An old hoopoe sings at the new year.
A fat horse has a hard mouth that will not heal.
An eagle with golden wings catches and eats whatever it wants.
A falcon hunting water birds encounters an eagle.
A crane lands but is caught in a snare.
A grey falcon with a white neck sits on a rock, and summers in a poplar tree.
very good
A tiger encounters a wild goat, but the goat escapes down a cliff.
An abandoned old woman stays alive by licking a greasy spoon.
A hunter falls over.
The old god of the road who mends things brings order to the country.
A man has no titles and a bad reputation.
very bad
A man goes to war, and makes a name for himself.
very good
A white horse.
A woman who has left her cups and bowls behind returns and finds them where she left them.
The sun rises and shines on the world.
A sheep encounters a wolf but remains safe.
A poor man's son returns home after earning some money.
Some felt falls into the water.
A stag with nine-pronged antlers bellows.
A butcher gains ninety sheep.
An eagle summers on a green rock, and winters on a red rock.
A man returning from war encounters a swan who leads him home.
A stout-hearted young man shoots an arrow that splits a rock.
A boy finds some eagle droppings.
Messengers on a yellow horse and a dark brown horse bring good news.
very good
The god of the road riding on a dappled horse bestows his favour on two travellers.

(Yes, this chart is slightly fucked up: it has more than one entry for a couple of rolls and is missing entries for a couple of others. You want knowledge from 12 centuries ago to be transmitted faultlessly, or do you want to embrace the weirdness?)

Like, this guy can probably tell a fortune or two
This is great as an in-game divination chart: the crone at the crossroads, once her palm is crossed with silver, can inform your players that ‘it rains and the grass grows’ (2-3-2), and that this is a good omen: and it’s sufficiently vague to act as a prophecy in most situations. It also has all the right imagery for a steppe-campaign, or for any campaign that features a vaguely steppe-style culture: orcs as Mongols, elves as Mongols, they both work.

But these fortunes are not just useful in-game: they also function externally to the game as adventure hooks, and there is a powerfully pleasing synchronicity to doing this. You can have the wayside witch prophecy ‘a woman drops her mirror in a lake’ (1-1-2) and make it sound metaphorical, and then you can straight-up have your players accosted by a distraught maiden who has lost her enchanted mirror in a nearby mountain lake. It’s a trap, of course: the lake is the abode of a witch, or it is 777 feet deep and utterly lightless, or the maiden is a flesh-eating horse-spirit out to drown her prey. ‘A poor man’s son returns home after earning some money’ (4-2-3) is a tasty recipe for tension in the next village.

Some of them are a little more cryptic: ‘a bear and a boar fight together and are both injured’ could just be a wilderness encounter for the party to cautiously creep past, but it’s going to be more fun if the bear and the boar are a local abbot and a bandit leader, with their rivalry dividing the valley. ‘Heaven decrees that a slave girl becomes a queen’ (3-1-4) is an entire goddamn campaign in a single sentence. Do the party elevate her? Are they the ones who discover her, Heaven moving through her to effect its ends? Do they work against her? Is she, in fact, a party member? Can she refuse Heaven’s command? Can you refuse the deep witchcraft of using 9th century steppe magic on your players? You cannot.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Ministers of grace defend us

Ursula Vernon. Despite the rest of this post, I do love this image. 
What is an angel, in terms theological and gameological? Traditional angels, as expressed in the MM in their threefold types, are very boring - magic giants, basically, or self-righteous djinni. There is something viscerally satisfying about the physical reality of devils as spiny little fightable fuckers that is not satisfying about angels. The tangibility of sin is what makes it interesting: but we tend to think of virtues as intangibles (as well as inherently less interesting).

Theologically there is a great deal of interesting latter-day folklore attaching to angels but when get down to it angels are agents - and, above all, messengers, not least etymologically, in English and most other Indo-European languages and in Hebrew before that. Obviously this is Gabriel’s deal and to some extent those of the cherubim and seraphim in Ezekiel’s famously trippy visions (a tip-off that angels of deeply strange embodiment have a long history) but among other angels this is not necessarily so. The destroying angel of Passover and the angel who wrestles with Jacob all night are not obviously messengers: they are actors. They are the angels on which D&D appears more obviously to draw: vectors of celestial intervention armed with sword and stern enchanted word. As noted, they are boring: but angels as toga-wearing messengers are boring too, since being a ‘messenger’ in a campaign is to be condemned to a life of boring info-dumping.

The solution - philosophically and mechanically satisfying, at least to me - is somewhere in between. Angels as bearers of divine words and angels as agents of divine deeds can be one and the same when word and deed are one - and why would they not be, for a god? The arrival of the angel of death at your un-blood-smeared door is both the news of your death and its enaction.

But an angel being both actor and messenger is still boringly personifying. We can go further - think of the Biblical ideas of the word made flesh, and of word in the beginning, and of the teachings of the Apostle McLuhan - and say that to be divine the angel must not just be the messenger but the message, not just the actor but the act. also that an angel is not just a messenger and an actor (still boringly personifying) but a message and an act. And if that is true, angels are free to be whatever you want them to be, as long as it’s weird and disruptive to the fabric of reality.

I have posted a couple of Faerun angels here lately - I’ll do some more probably - which take as their jumping off point the idea that the symbols of these gods are not arbitrary. Does the symbol define the angel or the angel the symbol? Unclear and unimportant: but this kind of high-symbolic, nigh-surrealist angel is the kind that brings home the appalling strangeness of the moment when a god touches its finger to the surface of the world. Angels should only

Seen elsewhere illustrating elementals, I think? 
But even better as an angel.
be embodied in this kind of alien manner: the Faerunian symbols are a nice nudge towards this, but angels could be a shower of ash or a white-hot whisper of wind or a spreading drop of blood on a flower-like fold of snow-white parchment.

In the same spirit, mechanically, angels should not have hit points and a spell list and a dex score. They should be category-breakers, phenomena that combine aspects of spell and monster and NPC and environmental hazard, like in Turner’s legendary ruleset. They are engines of divine intention, delivering themselves as retribution or protection or deliverance itself, to be DMed as an imperative and implacable force, intersecting suddenly with reality. Which is not to say they cannot be opposed.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

'This is a nightmare.' 'For all of us.'

Jeremy Saultier’s recent punk horror thriller Green Room is a fucking excellent movie and I urge you to see it. It’s urgent, it’s nasty, it’s clever, it’s funny, it’s chaotic: it sits in the present vein of grimy claustrocinema along with 10 Cloverfield Lane and It Follows (this post won’t spoil anything about any of these movies that you can’t learn from the trailers). In Green Room, a struggling four-piece punk band takes a gig in a tiny backwoods venue in the Pacific North-West only to discover that it’s a Neo-Nazi enclave. Naturally they want to play the gig as fast as possible and get the fuck out: naturally, when they blunder back into the venue’s beat-up green room after the show to grab their stuff and get back to civilization, they instead witness a murder. Suddenly, the skinhead owners don’t want them leaving…

What follows is a siege, complicated initially by the fact that the four of them are stuck in the green room not only with the body but with several other living people: potential enemies, potential allies, potential hostages. And meanwhile, outside, the leader of the enclave (Patrick Stewart!) is assembling his booted troops and his (literal) attack dogs…

Automatically makes all Charisma saving throws.
Can you guess what it is yet? Green Room is a module. The idea of the party-as-band is ancient, of course, including much slightly tendentious stuff about what instrument is what party role, but the movie avoids any of that kind of thing and also adds an ally who you could run as an NPC or a 5th party member. It breaks down beautifully into sessions, too: the initial set-up, the small-scale, interpersonal crisis inside the room as everything goes to fuck, the siege of the place as it escalates and the trapped party explores its rapidly narrowing list of options, and then the eventual, desperate breakout.

I won’t go into further detail, because, spoilers, and it would be more helpful to just watch the movie, which is a pretty fun way of doing 90 minutes of prep and will give you a clear idea of the shape of the building, the enivornment, the stakes, the numbers, the available gear, the NPCs. Reskin to taste: you could obviously happily run this with a mildly comical tone (as tends to arise when the party has to get up on stage and take a performance check) and wedge it into your regular campaign wherein the party is roped into performing in a remote, humans-only settlement, or indeed a remote orcish encampment, or a cult complex: or indeed an asteroid rest-station where they don’t like off-rockers poking around their weirdly lucrative mining concern.

But watch the film and see if you don’t want instead to run it as a one-off all-night gore-fest, one where you can do a lot of damage to the party and make the stakes high without derailing an existing campaign too far. It’s punker that way, a 2-minute 3-chord 4-piece track instead of the lengthy prog album that is a fantasy RPG campaign. You don’t need any magic, even, any fantasy at all: find a system you like, hand out character sheets, get fucking playing, and then screen the film at the end and see who did better.

Can you do better than this lot?