Saturday, 30 July 2016

Meet me there

What is at the crossroads, the one just outside of town where people try not to go after dark, the one your unknowing party is about to cross? (d20)
the most d&d painting ever, called 'The Knight at the Crossroads',
although it doesn't really depict one
  1. A hanged man, swinging on a gibbet. He is well-dressed but shoeless, and the carrion birds have begun to work on his feet as well as his hands and face. In a farmhouse not far away, the family are being driven mad by the sound of footsteps on their roof each night.
  2. At the foot of the signpost here is a wooden bowl of milk and a bunch of wildflowers. The flowers look fresh and unwilted but are crawling with green caterpillars and the milk smells fresh but tastes sour and rancid.
  3. An old, uncommunicative halfling woman selling a single red cabbage, not cheap. It's a beautiful, iridescent red-purple, and the white tips are pure snow white. Inside it is a warm, sticky human heart.
  4. A tree at this crossroads is burning from within, fiery splits cracking down its bark and smoke rising from the top like a chimney. The fire makes a low crackling sound, like voices through a closed door.
  5. A man trapped beneath his horse. He has fallen halfway into a ditch at the crossroads and his enormous chestnut horse has fallen across him, trapping him. It is kicking and rolling but has broken a leg. It's a much finer horse than a yeoman like him might be expected to have.
  6. The ancient waypost standing at the crossroads, a humanoid figure with a club carved into one side of it, is moving, wobbling and jolting in the earth.
  7. A woman frantically digging a deep, narrow hole by the side of the road – she will not stop digging even if spoken to, though she will breathlessly respond while still working. She has a canvas sack with her.
  8. There is a milestone here, a low chunk of rock with the name of the next town and a number carved into it. Along the back, half-buried, is a much more ancient funerary carving of a sun, a moon and a figure on horseback.
  9. A meteorite has landed right in the centre of the crossroads, minutes ago: it is still hissing and spitting inside the scar in the earth it has made, a fist-size chunk of red-hot sky-iron. Immensely valuable to some. You're probably not the only ones who saw it land.
  10. Concealed under a tatty old cloak in a ditch here is a bundle of a dozen shovels, all clean: a little searching will reveal a small stake with a red rag tied around it, driven into the ground just off the road.
  11. A great fish, gasping in the air. Some sort of wels, probably, as long as a man, green-black and whiskered and slimy. It is a long way from a large enough watercourse for it. Its flesh is pale and fatty and foul, but would feed a family for days. Its thoughts are unknowable.
  12. At one of the corners here is a long-fallen tree, grown over with mistletoe and ivy. There is an axe buried in the base, just as overgrown, the blade dulled and rusty and half-vanished in the still-clear rings of the trunk.
  13. As the party reaches the junction, it begins to rain, hard: on the junction and on whichever road from it they intend to take. After a few minutes they may find themselves wishing to take shelter, and the road may be close to impassable.
  14. There is a lantern fixed to the top of the waypost here, though it has not been lit for years: it is made of iron and thick blue glass full of bubbles and imperfections. None of the glass panes are broken, nor can they be by anything of this earth.
  15. A peddler is cooking something over a fire, his tent pitched just off the road along with his bags of kit. He is happy to trade, and even to share his food if he's treated well. A look in the pan reveals he is frying half a dozen small snakes and lizards alive.
  16. There is a big, angry dog tied to the waypost here by a short, fraying rope. It barks savagely at anything that comes near. It looks skinny and exhausted. If freed it will try to dig up a patch of disturbed earth just off the road.
  17. Just off the road here is the wreck of a coach, its canopies and hangings mostly torn off, two wheels smashed, half a dozen velvet cushions torn open and scattered around. There's no sign of the horses or occupants, but there is a diamond earring in the mud nearby.
  18. Someone is sitting, as though asleep, back propped against the milestone here: a shepherd, with a cloak and crook. He will not wake; his eyes have been gouged out and he is dead, though he shows no other signs of violence.
  19. A long low slab of stone sits by the crossroads here, covered in little iron trinkets: bent nails, broken horseshoes, knives, arrowheads. The stone is faintly magnetic, and the locals leave something for it every time they pass by. With good reason.
  20. The devil, desperate to make a deal.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Too Many Books

There are too many books in your campaign. I mean I hate to presume, but your campaign is probably littered with books. There are probably libraries on every street corner, rich people’s houses full of bookshelves, maybe even a character class that necessitates owning a book? Does this sound familiar?

In early medieval Europe, for two centuries, 120 books were produced every year. Not 120 different books being written - fuck no - 120 book-objects were completed each year during the 6th and 7th centuries. Mostly bibles. Some years - when Vikings hit a particular monastery, or just when some novice knocked over a candle - this must have been below the replacement rate, and the year must have ended with fewer books than it began. Not to mention that half the time books were produced by erasing old ones and reusing the paper.

Now, being fair, this didn’t last (you know, more than two hundred years). Even before printing happened, the 15th century saw 5 million books created. Even in the 10th century - still extremely the Dark Ages - there were 2,000 books being produced a year (but then this number collapsed again in the 11th, when the Vikings and the Magyars arrived on a mission to reverse historical notions of linear progress). But 2,000 books a year in the 10th century, and maybe 10,000 a year in the ‘High’ Middle Ages of the 11th-13th,  is still not that many, especially given
the area we’re looking at: see below for my source but we’re talking here about all of pre-Reformation Catholic Europe, which is almost certainly a far greater area than your campaign is taking place in. The time and place where the Middle Ages ‘peaked’, 13th century France - still a bigger area than your players will ever thoroughly explore - was producing maybe 5,000 books a year, Germany, Britain and Italy perhaps half that many. And although that kind of thing adds up over the years, it doesn’t add up that much, especially when most of the books are bibles distributed in individual churches: in 1289 the largest library in Europe (at the University of Paris) had about 1,000 books in it.

The mass availability of the written word is one of the defining aspects of modern culture and society (we ourselves have lived through the moment where the written word became essentially infinite), and almost all D&Dery (broadly construed) is aiming for a pre-modern society. Yes, there are obvious good reasons for books being relatively common in campaign worlds (and there are also clever ways to introduce more ‘books’, as with Vornheim's snakes), but sometimes it’s just convenience and laziness. Where are all these books coming from? If your campaign world has the printing press then this is a simple question and lots of books is fine, but if it doesn’t then this question poses a problem. Does the (admittedly intentionally vague) 5e version of Faerun have printing presses? Have the writers even thought about this? There’s something much longer to be written sometime (probably not by me) about whether the general underlying assumptions of D&D are medieval or Renaissance or a bit of both and whether that mix of assumptions makes much sense, but it’s certainly the case that the availability of the written word in most D&D is right at the top edge of plausibility for any kind of pre-modern society.

Not, obviously, that historical accuracy is the point here: the point is that scarce books can transform a campaign for the better. Much of what I said here about bells can also apply to books when books take a year to make and are worth hundreds more than a peasant earns in a year. Any book can be a Book of Vile Darkness-level instigator of conflict and quest, and the handful of extant libraries (which is to say, places where there are more than a dozen books) can be genuinely valuable locuses of learning and magic. Scribes are important figures in society, and their services are valuable (I can’t be bothered to get into the question of literacy among PCs, but, yeah). Possibly most interestingly, there is lots and lots of knowledge that only exists in one place: spells and chronicles and maps and confessions which, once destroyed, are gone forever.

Books in your campaign should not be like apps for your players, a suite of easily consulted adventuring aids and plot coupons. Your campaign needs evocative, rare, fragile, valuable, versatile, powerful, interactive items, and books are them.

Obligatory note on sources
– my source for all this is here in this completely fascinating paper. Obviously (as they note at length) these figures are very hard to establish but this is the best possible effort. Other model societies are available, obviously: Byzantine and Islamic societies of the same period were probably much more literate.

Monday, 25 July 2016

bell hooks

‘During the seventeenth century the bonshō [large bronze bell] was also a symbol of a temple's leadership; possession of the bell indicated ownership of the associated temple. As a result, bells were often stolen.’ - wiki

There are people out there in the world right now complaining that they don’t have a good idea for an adventure, and yet the world is full of sentences like this, just sitting there, waiting for you to graft the edition of your choice onto them. This post contains (d)10 bell-centric adventure hooks and some ponderings thereon. I like some of them enough that I'll probably flesh them right out in future posts.

Bells are great. They are interesting physical objects - conceptually simple enough that they
Japanese belfries - great, but harder to ambush
your players with bats in them
crop up in many cultures but difficult and fiddly things requiring very specialised craftsmanship to make. The big ones are also spectacularly heavy - they were probably the largest pieces of worked metal in the world until cannons became common, and individual ones became hugely important spiritually and politically: in Japan a war was fought using a bell inscription as a pretext, and in Burma the world’s largest bell inspired endless conflict and still does, despite having been lost at the bottom of a river for four hundred years (there are like nine adventures in that wiki article alone, people). In Russia there is a broken bell so big it was used for a time as a chapel. From this it is clear that bells are also good for you because the cultures that have centred them have often been non-Western, and researching them will take you interesting, non-Tolkeinian places. Yoon-Suin is probably full of bells. Bells are also obvious locuses for magic, which I haven't even really gotten to here - Garth Nix raised this to a particularly high level in his Old Kingdom books, which would make a wonderful campaign setting - but even mundane ones have the interesting property of making sound, which is useful and risky in equal measure.

My party presently carries a couple of silver handbells which are technically magical but no longer useful in that way, in that they were used as alarm-bells to magically alert the guards in a mansion the party ended up robbing. Presumably the surviving guards lost their jobs, but quite possibly they still feel the magical pulse in their heads when the party, now many miles away, rings one of them. The bells still make a sound, though, and the PCs mostly put them against the bottom of doors to alert themselves to possible pursuers or disturbers of their rest, which is sensible but of course also alerts the pursuers. (At time of writing one of the bells is also disabled after the druid, in giant spider form, filled it full of silk to silence it.)

The inside of the belfry in the cathedral of Split,
 which I am still going about, yes.
Best of all, bells imply interesting buildings: monasteries and temples and manors and castles and universities, all of them with the requisites belfries and towers. Spaces like this are clearly places you wish to set a fight, and no adventurer worth their salt misses the chance to swing from a bell-rope or indeed to ride a bell itself as it rings or as it is cut loose and crashes successively through seven floors of belfry (ideally landing on someone who has been persuaded to stand just there. Most of these 10 ideas imply such places: not just religious ones but secular ones too, since bells were useful for local lords trying to assert control from their homes.

1 - The party is hired to steal the great bell from a nearby monastery, for by long-standing and divinely inspired precedent whoever possesses and rings the great bell controls the monastery, and with it considerable spiritual and temporal power. The monastery is well-guarded, and the bell, which is near the centre of the complex, weighs twice the weight of the heaviest party member.
2 – The party is contracted to recover a once-famous bell from a submerged temple in a river valley which was flooded many years ago. Locals, who live higher up the slopes of the valley nowadays, say they sometimes hear it toll underwater, but nobody has shown much interest until recently when a scholar arrived nearby offering good money for its recovery. It’s a good 100ft underwater and weighs as much as the heaviest party member.
3 – By long tradition, the death of the local lord is announced by the tolling of a bell in the tower of the manor, from where the whole household and village can hear it. His lordship is on the edge of death and has been for weeks, and his heir has ordered the bell rung, but his lordship’s wife, who is exercising power in his name, has refused. Both sides are willing to use subterfuge. The bell is the size of a man’s torso and about as heavy.
4 – The peasants around a manor have come to believe that the old bell that rings the end of the working day is cursed in some way, and that its peal distorts time and forces them to work longer. They want it destroyed, or at least uncursed. The lord of the manor thinks this is nonsense. The truth of it is up to you. The bell is certainly odd: small but very dense with an uneven tone.
5 – An ageing and wealthy noble is gifting a fine new bell to a monastery, at enormous expense. It’s huge and massively heavy – it’s being drawn to the remote hillside of the monastery by a team of eight oxen. It needs guarding, and it moves horribly slowly. The benefactor in question is probably dying and is widely despised, including by the monks, but they don’t feel able to turn down the bell.
6 – Per ancient law, all those farms within the sound of the manor’s bell owe tithes there. For centuries the boundary has not changed, the ‘sound of the bell’ thing being interpreted as a poetic and dated way of saying ‘a mile or so’, but an ambitious new steward thinks he can be getting much more income by actually sounding it and testing the boundaries. The party are the kind of outsiders who could act as neutral – or easily influenced – arbiters. The bell itself has not been rung in living memory: it’s a beautiful bell of tarnished silver.
7 – A new bell of implausible magnificence has been commissioned for a temple, and the foolish bellmaker, boggled by the size of the commission, has agreed to it without considering where they will get all the necessary bronze, which needs to be remarkably pure. Can the party source some? It need not necessarily still be in the ground, if they can find sufficiently pure objects that nobody will miss.
8 – A decree – the birth of a new prince, maybe – has ruled that the bells of all monasteries throughout the land shall be rung from sunrise until sunset on a certain day, on pain of confiscation of the monastic property: but the monks here have all been incapacitated with a strange sickness. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? They want someone to do it for them. They might not mention the land-hungry aristocrat up the road.
9 – By law, all those infected with leprosy – or similar – must carry bells to warn the clean of their approach. Around these parts this law has long been ignored, since the nearby leper colony largely keeps itself to itself – but someone has now decided it needs serious enforcing, and wants the party to do the dirty work of delivering the bells and persuading the lepers to start using them.
10 – To kill the monstrous eagle would be sacrilege, as well suicidal: on this everybody agreed. And for it to take a few sheep now and then is a fair price to pay for the sheer sight of it. But in the last month two shepherds too have been killed. If only there was a way of making its approach less silent, and some adventurers willing to give it a go.

But also, yes, I did this post for the title. Not sorry.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The gods of the godless city

There are no gods in the traditional sense in Chirica: but there are sects and cults: there are mystics and prophets: there are holy texts and icons. There are numerous places of worship, some of them obvious, some of them not.

It is possible that there was, once, a true religion in Chirica. There are temple-like buildings – some derelict, some repurposed – across the city that seem to share certain characteristics, but truly reconstructing this religion seems to be impossible, unless you believe one of the many petty messiahs or starry-eyed antiquarians who think they have solved it. The city's real religion is its vast ecosystem of sects, which changes rapidly but retains one loose organising principle, being divided between those who worship and embrace the city's essential, negative qualities, and those who venerate anything that seems to push against that negativity.

Of the former, there is, for instance, a group of worshippers who meet in one of the city's great, disused cisterns, half-flooded, where they solemnly submerge themselves in the stagnant, algal water, in total silence, washing themselves of the life of the city above: and there is a mystic in the Bajan who promotes, and claims to practise, the eating of the ashes of the cremated, which his emaciated followers steal from the city's crematoria.

And of the latter, there are the courtly ladies whose fascination with baubles of coloured and gilded glass is more than fashion: there are the fishermen who cast back into the sea, with a motion of the first and little fingers they have learned without understanding, the rare and brilliant sharp-toothed salmon that they sometimes catch: there are those who abduct the city's children, to set them on thrones and honour them. They refuse, in their awe, to touch the child, and therefore refuse to nourish or care for it.

None of this seems to change the fact that when adventurer clerics are brought, through the dark and icy water, to the city's streets, their patronage holds good. But it does raise the question of why.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Orang-utans I Have Seen (If Not Touched)

What has a druid seen? Depends on the druid, duh, yes, but this is an important question nowadays because the 5e druid can be any animals they’ve seen: or, more accurately, any beast, which has a technical meaning. The list of every beast can be had here (filter for beasts): wherefrom we derive the well-known principle that druids cannot be magical monsters but can be giant versions of normal animals. But actually this already itself starts to be confusing, viz., if a druid has seen a rat but not a giant rat, evidently a druid can’t become a giant rat: but does that really make sense? Isn’t it possible to just mentally envision ‘a rat but bigger’ as you prepare to transform? But then where is the upper limit of this power – it would allow you to transform into anything at any size (or the lower limit, even – there are all sorts of interesting espionage uses for inch-long apes, probably).
But it also seems silly to assume that a green young acolyte from the northern woods has seen giant scorpions. The 5e DMG has that useful list of monsters by environment: it might be sensible to assign one such list to a druid at creation the same way a ranger gets favoured terrain, and say that they can transform into anything from that subset (plus anything obviously universal like rats and mice).
But this may itself not be enough, depending on the background of the druid in question. My current campaign has a druid using the 5e pirate background – which, incidentally, there is no very good way to set up a sea druid at the moment, but that’s for another time – who, we may justifiably assume (especially since she’s an elf and thus probably been around for a while) has seen the world, as one does when at sea. So she has probably seen a range of animals, including some quite unusual ones. A camel? A peacock? An orang-utan? These have all arisen, but deciding whether or not a character has seen them encompasses many questions about trade and travel and diversity that I had not properly considered.
At first we managed this by having her take nature checks whenever she wanted to be something outlandish – but this is an unsatisfactory, slightly soulless method. Better is simply this, and this is what I counsel for your games, along with the favoured terrain style list – the druid has to explain, satisfactorily, where and when and in what context they have seen this animal. If the story is good enough and filled with juicy detail, and crucially if it’s new and not a re-run of a story previously used to justify another such transformation, then it passes. There are a handful of obvious answers – as the pet of some warlord dude I met as a kid who liked exotic pets is perennially useful – but after a couple of those your druid will have to start being creative. And it gives you the chance to have the warlord with the exotic pet show up and really alarm everybody.
So, for this reason (and also because whoa, druids are, like, pretty good, especially Circle of the Moon ones) I am strongly in favour of being quite strict in the ‘animals you have seen’ rule. I have also considered being even stricter and changing it to ‘animals you have touched’ (‘the Animorphs system’) but this might be a bit cruel, since there are many commonplace animals you can be assumed to have seen frequently without necessarily ever having touched them (especially true once the druid gets access to birds).
Most of all, though, this is the reason for being strict: it incentivizes the party to break into zoos, pet shops, private menageries and so forth. And this is something all games need.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

'The Deformer, a permanent resident of the Cave, starts work at once.'

...It was also where the witches lived and evil came from. The Incas called this land “the Place of Seagulls...”

So did you all just know about the ancient Chilean insular witchcraft societies and refuse to tell me? Did something this amazing slip your mind? Not cool.

...This cave (which Chilote tradition asserts was lit by torches that burned human fat)...

Honestly, the next time you need a freakish cult for your creepy seaside town, or one of many bacillae in the great corrupt city, or really (with a bit of fleshing out) an entire damn plot for a lengthy adventure, this stuff has you covered.

...Each novice, when he joined the sect, was expected to fashion his own waistcoat; Chatwin reports that this was done by digging up and flaying a recently interred Christian corpse...

I mean, you could dump this stuff into almost any setting. But why not use Chiloe itself, since it's a barren island clinging to a barren mainland, its back to the endless ocean (the badass, icy, utterly empty Southern Pacific, not the fucking Hawaii-level Pacific), with a history of rebellion and recalcitrance and the world's most fucked-up local mythology?

...This potion was, supposedly, so noxious that it made them vomit up their own intestines. Thus lightened, the girls turned into large, long-legged birds that resembling rooks...

I mean, the level of juicy detail here. The chivato is whatever level of bear-like semi-bipedal beast will challenge your party properly: the rook-girls you can reskin from harpies, but then, what happens when your players steal their intestines? It's questions like this that make life worth it. The rituals are secret and foul but hopefully you have a player tempted by power. You definitely have a player who wants a phosphorescent waistcoat made of human skin.

...the human grease remaining in the skin gives off a soft phosphorescence, which lights the member’s nocturnal expeditions...

Read the article and read Wiki on the matter and also imperatively read Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia which is full of all manner of other ends-of-the-earth good shit, up to and including megatheria which are a friend to all good campaigns. Go forth and freak your players out like they were 17th century Spaniards a very long way from home.

...They might then have been ordered to murder a close relative or friend to prove that they had cleansed themselves of human sentiment (these murders, for some unstated reason, were to take place on Tuesdays)...


...with a tourniquet until it has rotated through an angle of 180 degrees, that is until the child can look straight down the line of its own vertebrae... 

Friday, 15 July 2016

To Kill A Marketplace

How do you kill a place? I mean, you can knock a building down – but people will tend to put it back up, if they need it, and if they're used to the idea that it's there and that it's useful to have it there. The place is still the place, even if the building is new. In Sarajevo in the 90s, the fruit-and-veg market downtown persisted through the Serbian siege, even when there was next to no food in the city to buy and sell – and even when it was hit with mortars repeatedly, and even when those mortar attacks were horrific enough that they were what finally triggered NATO intervention. Even after the war, when relative comfort returned and the process of memorialising began, the marketplace stayed a marketplace, and the memorial there now is surprisingly unobtrusive.

Marketplaces are some of the most persistent places there are. The Zocalo in Mexico City was there as the market when the city was Tenochtitlan, one block from the Aztecs' centre of the universe, the Great Temple. It survived the Spanish conquest of the city, the cultural transformation, the revolutions and all the rest of it until finally being cleared out in the 90s. The temple precinct itself was built over with a Catholic cathedral, reusing stones from the temple: places of worship are persistent too. The great mosque in Damascus was a cathedral beforehand, and a Roman temple before that, and the temple of an Aramean storm god before that. Rome is also full of cathedrals and basilicas sitting on the site of older religious structures, and of other persistently useful and meaningful structures: the Trevi fountain is the terminus of a Roman aqueduct from shortly before the time of Christ, restored again and again by various emperors and popes wishing to demonstrate their magnanimity. Emperors and gods and popes get mixed up a lot – Split, which I talked about before, turned an imperial palace into a city and the emperor's domed mausoleum into a cathedral, which is thus the oldest in Europe. Spaces for performance and entertainment persist like this too – performances like public executions, say, or fights, or plays: theatres used to be bywords for fire hazards and yet they were always rebuilt (which is why so many of them are called the Phoenix). London is full of pubs and theatres that used to be cockpits, bearpits and the like. Lots of them are still called that. Places and their purposes persist.

Having a party kill a place would be a good urban quest. Anyone with a moderate amount of
kinetic magic can knock down a building – but most parties can't deal with the entire organism of the city responding to that, swarming the party with cityfolk and then, presumably, just rebuilding and getting on with it. Actually stopping a place be the place it has always been is hard, and interesting. Who wants the party doing this? Does an oligarch want a market destroyed to concentrate more trade into his hands? Do religious fundamentalists want a space for sinful public enjoyment wiped from the landscape? And how does it actually get done? A sufficiently brutal and spectacular massacre maybe stains a place forever, but it's a hard thing for a party to get away with. And it probably just reinforces the presence of a place of public execution. Cutting off the import of all cotton into the city closes the textile market, maybe, but how is that done? Desecrating and unhallowing a sacred place requires complex ritual magic, and raises all sorts of problems for paladins and clerics. Fountains can be smashed, but the natural springs and streams that underpin them are harder to stop.

In the centre of Chirica is a web of buildings by the long-dead occult architect Karint Sphora, who lives on through her works, influencing the commerce and conduct of the populace for purposes unknown to any other. Her students and enthusiasts wittingly and unwittingly sustain her creations and their purposes, but there are others in the great city working to loosen the grasp of her dead masonry hand. They will hire the party to make sure that nobody ever wants to buy or sell under the convoluted iron vaults of the Nail Market again: to empty the House of the High Tallow of its pyrotheist sect: to put an end once and for all to the savage, revolutionary cabaret played every night for coppers at the Wheelwright's Rest: to dry up the mouths of the great, coiling masonry serpents at the Ninefold Fountain forever.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

All feudal cons

The other day I talked about manors and making them quirky and unique and escaping the dread trap of the quadratic Roman-style military castle, and I promised further on this matter. Here it is: for the methodology see the former post. The Remains table here tends to create proper hooks for dungeons and locations, and the Amenities offer locations where you can get what you need for your party, and which suggest necessary NPCs (implied by many of these results - add them in and flesh them out). 

You'll be wanting both then, but you only get as many as you rolled up in the original post. Either way, these are the things that make a manor memorable, and make its owners and inhabitants different: not just as a way for you to keep the  separate in your head but as as way to make them actually work differently and respond to the arrival of adventueres differently - the manor with the eerie barrow is not the same as the one with the obsequious butler.

I cannot make the formatting for some of the amenities work. Fuck it.

Remains - (d20, as many times as the manor is old)

1 – Standing stone – Somewhere within the circle of the walls – perhaps in its exact centre, perhaps where its shadow touches the hall's doorway on midsummer – is a standing stone, obviously artificially placed but rough and unworked, higher than a grown man, an ugly sentinel from another age.
2 – Crypt – Under the body of the manor – most likely under the hall – is a low, dank space where previous lords of the manor have been buried, perhaps for centuries. Perhaps the tradition is still in place, perhaps not. Perhaps people go down here regularly to pay their respects, maybe on a certain day ever year: perhaps it's near-forgotten, a low door hidden behind some barrels in the wine cellar.
3 – Ruined religious structure – In the grounds is a ruin – a rough circle of stone, now only ankle-high, or a platform with concentric lines carved in it, or a yew tree whose roots have long since swallowed the marking around it. It is unused, and its rituals are not recalled.
4 – Barrow – Against the walls, or even built into them, is a long, low mound, like a boat washed over with a wave of turf: a barrow, the grave of a long-gone lord. It has never been opened. Perhaps morning mists cling to it for a little too long: perhaps the grass grows a deeper green on it.
5 – Mound/bailey – A part of the grounds, most likely the part with the main house on it, is raised up on an artificial mound. It doesn't feel especially artificial, since it's turf and has been scuffed and trampled for hundreds of years: but it is.
6 – Old wall line – The walls around this place ran differently once. Now there's a waist-high stub running at a funny angle past the kitchen, or an irritating ditch limiting the size of the stableyard: or, far outside the shrunken compound, the long loop of a ruined wall from happier days.
7 – Deep disused cellar – Somewhere below and behind and beyond the least-used of the regular cellars – at the back end of that useless half-height space beyond the buttery, or in the base of the leaning tower, or unnervingly close to the moat, the walls slick with damp always – is a deep, unmortared cellar. Nothing is kept in it but things people wanted to forget. It echoes.
8 – Connects to natural cavern – Some part of the manor – some underground part, one presumes – connects to a natural cavern, which in times past might have had all manner of uses. Under the ridge that the wall runs along, perhaps, there's a cleft in the rock that runs surprisingly deep: or one of the oldest, half-underground parts of the house wasn't dug out entirely by mortal hands but by time itself.
9 – Carved stones – Dotted into the wall of the great hall, mostly near the base, are large, rounded stones, carved with spirals, loops, eddies – perhaps with figures, too, though the stones are worn, so smoke-blackened. They are not like the stone the rest of the hall was made from. They are not like stones from around here at all.
10 – Ancient hearth – The hearth in the great hall is far older than the rest of it, as revealed by the stonework, thick with generations of soot and ash. The stone flags beneath it are smooth and glassy. The fire may never have gone out – for centuries.
11 – Graveyard – There is a graveyard of some kind within the walls, but not in the current fashion. A strange little forest of worn, crumbling pillar monuments, some of them embossed with stars, suns, moons. The children play in them, but grown folk walk wide of them.
12 – Rock outcrop – A great, spiny outcrop of rock is incorporated into the manor building itself – not the wall but the hose, perhaps the crag on which the hall sits, perhaps breaking like a wave through the wall of the private apartments. Certainly in earlier times men huddled naked in its lee.
13 – Towerhouse – One of the towers here was the whole dwelling, once, long ago. It's a least a storey higher than the others and massive, fat, thick-walled, lurking sulkily behind the main, newer house. It's stones are thick with moss. Guard duty in it is misliked.
14 – Sealed well – As well as the manor's current well, there is an older one in the grounds here. It's sealed, capped, but everyone knows where it is. Parents worry about their children playing near it. Perhaps it dried up. Perhaps something else happened.
15 – Massive quern - Sitting brooding in the yard is a vast quern, a grindstone the size of a large dinner table. Impossible to imagine how it was ever moved. It was just for making bread, of course. But it has strange stains, perhaps. The current miller leaves a coin on it on holy days, perhaps.
16 – Hot spring – There's a hot spring somewhere around the manor. Very likely this is a large part of why it was built here to begin with. Now it's used as a kind of bath-house, probably, and by washerwomen.
17 – Byre – The manor has an old-fashioned, now probably rather embarrassing lean-to cattle shed, a half-enclosure right up against the great hall where the cattle steam and grunt and nudge against each other. No doubt the area was once thick with raiders, that it was kept so long.
18 – Purity house - Now disused, there's a little stone cottage hard up against the walls, away from the main house – in times past, the impure and the taboo would be sent here until the moon had changed. The tradition is no longer practised, but nor is it forgotten.
19 – Beacon – Little-used anywhere now, but this manor retains a base for a beacon, a solid stack of stone and turf somewhere within the walls on top of which warning beacons used to be lit. Perhaps the fire had other uses too.
20 – Cyclopean foundations – The foundations of the manor are massive, with vast, smoothly cut blocks of stone and no mortar to be seen. Modern masons confess themselves baffled by the technique.

Amenities - (d20, as many times as the manor is rich)

1 – Mill - Rather than having a mill in the village (or as well as), the mill here is within the bounds of the manor. Perhaps the waterwheel extends into the moat, or maybe - if it’s on high ground - there is one of those new-fangled wind-driven mills.
2 – Library - The manor has a collection of books, so many they have their own room - probably part of the lord’s private apartments. There might be as many as a few dozen books here. The room will probably be under lock and key at all times.
3 – Chapel -  Whatever the relevant religious system is, this manor takes it more seriously: it has its own temple, or a larger one than usual, or a dedicated space for religious observance, or whatever else marks out piety in this society (ostentatious or otherwise).
4 – Mews- Someone here keeps falcons. Usually this is a shed against the perimeter wall, darkened and full of the stinking guts of rabbits and the quiet shuffling of feathers. The falconer almost certainly sleeps here too.
5 – Kennels - Most manors have a dog or two but whoever is sovereign here is particularly into hunting with hounds and keeps a couple of dozen, with their own large kennel somewhere in the courtyard. The dogs will be all over the place half the time, getting underfoot.

6 – Tilting ground - The lord of the manor likes jousting, and has a space set up for it, with the requisite barrier and probably some kind of spectators’ stand, though that may just be a couple of benches and an awning.

7 – Smithy - There’s a forge and the necessary equipment within the walls, and likely a smith too, making useful things - largely horseshoes. Useful person to know. Horrible fire hazard too.
8 – Archery butts – Whether as a pastime or to keep the populace drilled, this manor has staked out a space within its walls for archery practice, with straw targets at one end. Presumably there's a busy fletcher somewhere around here.
9 – Fishpond – Maybe a still, wide part of the moat if there is one, maybe it's own thing, but there's a fishpond within the walls, where tench and trout get far and comfortable. There is a huge, half-legendary pike lurking by the bank. There is always a huge, half-legendary pike.

10 – Herb garden – Within the grounds is a walled-off garden where herbs and spices are grown: it's somewhere sheltered from the wind, where fragile and exotic plants have a chance. The smells from it drift at odd times into other rooms. The things grown there have all manner of uses.
11 – Walled formal garden – Against the hall is a garden in the new style, with hedges and gravel paths, carefully and pointlessly tended, with topiary and paths for circulating elegantly and bowers, overgrown with creeper, where secrets can be exchanged.
12 – Fountain – Inside the hall, maybe, or in the courtyard, is an artificial fountain, water rerouted out of the mouth of some great scaly fish or round a perfect, trickling series of pools. It's cool here, always.
13 – Decent guest quarters – Unlike in so many places, the guests here need not sleep in the great hall, or in the stables if they're unlucky. There's a whole additional solar here, well-furnished and comfortable, perhaps even with its own hearth. The lord of the manor must be solicitous, or desirous of company.
14 – Scriptorium – Some houses have books, but this manor has a place for making more
of them, and someone who knows how it's done. There are frames for the vellum, ingredients for ink, a well-lit room, a desk, and other works to copy. There's the assurance of working in this little room without disturbance.
15 – Observatory – Up one one of the manor's towers, or some flattened corner of the roof, is a spot where the stars can be seen clearly: somewhere nearby (but somewhere covered and protected, not open to the elements, of course) is a spyglass and a set of charts, much amended and annotated. Someone in this place waits eagerly for equinoxes and the like, and knows their timings.
16 – Music room – Minstrels and the like are common enough, and many dining halls have a spot for them, but here some of the family members themselves are learning instruments, as well as holding more intimate recitals. This room – part of the private apartments – has carefully made and covered walls for fine acoustics, and a collection of valuable instruments.
17 – Decent outhouse – Generally speaking the rich people might get chamberpots and most other people get a hut over a pit, but here someone has some modern ideas about hygeine: there's a proper privy here with a water source, decently separated from the main house.
18 – Sizeable wine cellar – Whoever is lord here is a connoisseur, and keeps an extensive cellar of wines, stocked in a cool, dark chamber, near the kitchens and the hall. Very possibly there's a butler too, tasked solely with their selection and serving. The rest of the servants probably (rightfully) hate him.
19 – Heating system – Some clever soul here has rigged up a heating system: underfloor, Roman-style, maybe, or a system of ceramic stoves running through the building, all fed from a central furnace. Winters are far less miserable than for most folk.
20 – Smokehouse – Somewhere in the grounds is a high-roofed wooden shack, well sealed with pitch, with a wet, smoky fire constantly tended, making smoke to blacken and preserve the joints of fish and meat hanging from the rafters. Working in there is horrible, but the product is delicious.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

All Manor of Things

Castles, which infest the surface of most vaguely medieval, vaguely rural D&D settings (i.e. most of them), are a bit shit. Or, no, castles are fucking great, because castles are fucking bizarre: but the neatly quadratic barracks full of soldiers and implausibly high-level fighters passing for feudal lords – which is what most lazily conceived castles are like - can fuck off. If you want to do D&D (or similar) that has a noble house every few miles, whether randomly occuring as session-long entertainments in a hexcrawl or set up as important points of civilization and NPC fun, you shouldn't treat each of them like a military camp (and nor should you treat them like a dungeon).

The trouble is (said the early Renaissance brand consultant, grinning as he flipped the charts of his vellum Powerpoint) the whole castle brand is creating misconceptions, yeah? So let's rebrand, let's really get back to basics – because back to basics also usually means back to the underlying weirdness that some fucker sanitised ages ago in the name of curtailing some session planning. No more castles, but lots and lots of fortified manor houses – which are the same thing only the term is more closely associated with hodgepodge constructions torn between leisure and defence and trade and scholarship, with a barbican and a herb garden and a great hall and a standing stone built into the wall somewhere that thrums in the dreams of the kitchen boy and begs him for his lordship's sweet blood.

Here all around this post are pictures and floorplans of the aggregate, moated juiciness of the (English and Welsh, mostly) fortified manor house, to give you some idea of how messy and ad-hoc they are. This is the best one. If we're being properly feudal, each of these is the seat of some kind of local lord and controls the land around for a few square miles. Mostly they have villages clustered around them or quite nearby. But exactly where they are and what they're for depends – are they densely packed along a military frontier, where the king has posted newly-minted earls to act as speedbumps when the ogres come drooling out of the east, indricotherium siege beasts gorging on the neat crop-rotation-diagram fields? Do they dot the pleasant rolling hills near the great city, each one of them hosting balls and jousts and incest and other good things? Do you want to flesh out the village manor for your Beyondthe Wall campaign, having bought The Nobility? (Buy it! It is good.) Did a well-placed manor house get trapped behind a stormcloud 700 years ago and ellided into an oddly grassy corner of the plane of djinni? Happens all the time. Is your campaign not feudal at all but still has a use for weird country houses scattered around the landscape? Every campaign does. This generator draws on 'real' history not big on actual magic or overt fantasy elements, but there are many places such things can be jammed in. Halflings fucking love to build rambling mansions on century-long timescasles. Hippogriffs need stables too.

The first thing is to generate how old the house and how grand it is. The subsequent tables

are modified by the age and/or wealth of the manor: each of these is a d4 if you’re generating fully at random, or else pick if you need to work with an especially luxurious/modern/whatever manor because you're scared of randomness. Fool. The combination of age and wealth, and the way they influence every other table, also ends up determining the third chief characteristic of a manor house, its size (ie this isn’t determined directly, but the richer the bigger, duh,and to some extent the same is true for age, but not so neatly). So, roll -

Age (d4)

1 New - The manor was built within living memory or just outside of it - certainly within the last 100 years. The plan probably hasn’t been much modified since and any previous dwellings were not incorporated into the building, if there even have been any here: it’s likely quite fashionable as a result. Perhaps the manor is a new grant, or a younger child of a noble family trying to set up on their own.

2 Fairly Old - The house is a few hundred years old, or at least large parts of it are. A clear plan to the building is probably still discernible, and any modifications have been fairly discreet (and discrete). The inhabitants are probably well-established but not especially powerful or notable.

3 Old - The house is several hundred years old, parts of it maybe even older. It will mostly feel like a hodgepodge of different wings and rooms: there is probably still a clear main body to the house but it may now be decrepit, with those able to do so living in newer quarters. Whatever family lives here probably has an ancient line, assuming they can trace it to the original occupiers.

4 Ancient - The house, or a house on this site, has existed for many centuries: at least a millennium, in some form or another. The whole place is a mess, feeling more like a compound than a single house, and the foundations go well beyond anyone’s reliable knowledge. Parts of the building may be entirely neglected. There have almost certainly been multiple tenants, but the current ones may nevertheless be very senior.

Wealth (d4)

1 Impoverished - This is a poor seat, however noble. There may have been occasional periods of mild prosperity but by and large this manor has always struggled: it will probably be cramped and dated, with upgrades lacking and fashionable architectural styles and innovations nowhere to be seen. Most likely it is on poor agricultural land and away from decent trade routes, but it may simply belong to an unlucky or unfavoured family.

2 Modest - This manor has never been luxurious or showy: its inhabitants live well enough but this is a functional place with little thought going into decoration, though there may be one or two more impressive parts. Possibly it belongs to a cadet line or is in some out-of-the-way place.

3 Comfortable - This is a well-off manor, able to afford renovations and expansions where necessary but not indulging in splendour for its own sake. Most manorial families consider this the right standard of living, and the place will impress most visitors: but it is still likely to feel functional in some places and dated in others.

4 Rich - This is the peak of feudal living: this house will be luxurious and elaborate, and though parts of it may be far from new they will still be impressive. A house of this kind will likely belong to a distinguished lineage or be sited in especially valuable and extensive lands - or, very likely, both. Nevertheless, it is a manor, not a palace.

The actual site of a manor house is defined to a great extent by its defences: these are not full on boring curtain-walled castles but most are fortified in some way because everything in the past wants to kill you. Each house has d4 stone towers: where there are no true (stone) walls these towers are simply appendages of the main house. If there are proper walls, one of the towers is probably a gatehouse. A ‘tower’ in this sense can mean a lot of things, depending on the house: but they are always of at least 2 storeys and usually a story or two higher than any other part of the house, and they are likely round (or at least the part of them facing out is). Whether they are roofed, elaborately crenellated. depends on the house: and very likely each tower is different, even within a single house. Towers are not purely military structures: if attached to the main house they may contain domestic rooms lower down, and if they’re part of a curtain wall there are probably stables and storehouses in their bases.

A manor house also has defenses as follows: roll d12 and then add the value of the house’s wealth roll for a result from 2 to 16. These perimeters usually in some way run through the house or right alongside it, rather than having the house be at the centre of an enclosed space - that is, if there are stone walls, the walls of the manor probably form part of them on one side.
2 - Nothing at all - unwise.
3 - Ditch - not filled with water. Probably a small raised bank on the inside, but not a true wall.
4 - Moat - is filled with water. Probably about waist deep, maybe deeper. In peacetime people swim here, wash clothes etc. Probably fed by, or incorporating, a diverted stream.
5 - Earthworks - largish bank of earth with steep outsides.
6 - Wooden stockade - at least 6ft high. Towers will be stone but the rest is just sharpened logs.
7 - Stone wall - might have battlements, and a walkway, if it’s high enough.
8 - Earthwork and ditch.
9 - Earthwork and moat.
10 - Stockade and ditch.
11 - Stockade and moat.
12 - Stone wall and ditch.
13 - Stone wall and moat.
14 - Stone wall and moat with fully fortified barbican (this doesn’t count as a tower).
15 - Stone wall with stockade outerworks in places, i.e. outer layer at approach to gate, corners, obvious weak points etc.
16 - Double stone wall, the inner one higher than the outer, with a moat between them. Fancy.

Within those walls, a manor house really only needs one thing: a large central hall with a
hearth, at one time (and maybe still) the only real living space in the building, and still the main communal space for eating, socialising and various bits of feudal business. Almost all manors will share a few other features, however: within the main building the lord of the manor will have a private bedroom (and probably a connected private sitting room: these will most likely be upstairs), and there’ll be a kitchen attached to the hall. Disconnected from the main house but still within the ring of fortifications will very likely be most or all of: a stable, some storage for foodstuffs (chiefly grain, but also preserved meats etc) and a well (d6x20ft deep, may or may not be covered).

The hall itself is almost certainly the largest and grandest room in the place, and will have some distinguishing features. Roll on this table as many times as the higher of the two age/wealth results: it has all the resultant features (some can work twice, otherwise reroll). This table excludes smaller furnishings: cutlery, plates, assorted chairs etc and at least one large table can also be assumed to be present.

(d20, x times)
1 - A richly decorated bay window
2 - A cavernous fireplace on one side, with a hearth large enough for numerous people to sit 
3 - A dais at one end for the most prestigious dining table
4 - An elaborate pulley-and-spit system for roasting large animals on the fire
5 - Impressive chandeliers hanging from the rafters. D4 of them
6 - A screen passage from the kitchen - i.e. one screened-off end, the screen likely carved
7 - A large curtain that can be drawn across one part of the hall for privacy
8 - A minstrel’s gallery at one end
9 - A large gallery/platform for secluded or informal eating at one end
10 - Ornate tapestries and wall-hangings
11 - Carved wood panelling on one wall
12 - A peep-hole (aka Judas) from the lord’s bedroom
13 - An especially elaborate principal seat, where the lord of the manor sits
14 - A sunken firepit in the middle, where the hearth is: fire here at all times, chimney above
15 - A disused firepit in the middle, now just a depression
16 - Spectacularly carved hammerbeam roof
17 - A fancy floor with patterned tiles
18 - Some kind of small household shrine in a niche in the wall
19 - A tree inside: now dead and preserved but once living and growing through the wall
20 - A well in one corner of the great hall rather than out in the courtyard. D6x20ft deep

That's really all you need: add outbuildings to taste. But I will do another bunch of posts in the next few days with more interesting ways of using those outbuildings and the related stuff you've generated already, and of filling the place with weird and stealable objects and people.