Tuesday, 30 August 2016

either we shall find strange adventures or else some great change in our fortunes

When you were a kid and (I hope) read children’s fantasy for the first time, what was the first adventure/campaign-style book that made an impression on you? When was the first time you read, unwittingly, through a campaign? What is the book that, when you first discovered D&D, part of your brain - whether you said so around the table or not - looked back at as you realised you could reinhabit the feeling of those books?

The accepted answer to this question, the children’s book supposedly most influential on the way roleplaying games work, is The Hobbit, and indeed there are good historical reasons for citing this, but only as LOTR’s younger cousin. We all know that a 14-person party, plus one wizard who can’t make most of the sessions, is not a feasible party, and then at the end a fucking NPC slays the dragon and you have to do a bunch of fiddly mass combat. Nah. The first book you read about a D&D campaign - probably before The Hobbit anyway - was The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. You know this to be true. 

It's a perfect potted intro campaign, with intro meaning 'far from perfect', but Pauline Baynes went and mapped it for you so quit complaining. It’s a 4 person party, as run by a sloppy DM who plays favourites, but everybody has fun in the end:

  • Peter - Fighter or Paladin. Insufferable, but does most of the talking. Spotlight-grabbing player.
  • Marching order is important. The Pevensies
    know this instinctively.
    Edmund - Rogue. Weirdly overdone ‘betrayal storyline’ forced on him by DM at one point (possibly he went on holiday and was run as an NPC for a month?).
  • Susan - Ranger. Most competent party member, killing machine, natural leader, DM doesn’t like her.
  • Lucy - Rogue? Wizard? Specialist? Really Lucy is Zak’s Alice, the adventure-dynamo class, made of curiosity and luck and obviously the DM’s favourite.

It has a tutorial module where a faun teaches Lucy (probably the only new player) how to
have encounters and interact with NPCs while also throwing her a bunch of setting information she can reveal to the rest of the party as she chooses; a handy equipment gift of fur coats at the beginning; a twist to the set-up when Mr Tumnus’ house is found raided; some hexcrawling while Edmund takes a few weeks off and the world-warping Big Bad is introduced; an encounter with major NPCs at the well-mapped Stone Table location (before which the DM rewards the party with half a dozen rolls on a treasure table) which sets up a lot of wider universe stuff; a rogue-stuff mission into the major enemy dungeon followed by a big combat encounter; and then good hooks for another campaign for those who can make it back.

You could reskin this in seconds, add in a little leeway for different player decisions, and go off to the races and your players will never notice. Like, for example:

  • Everything’s Himalayan, Tumnus as quasi-Buddhist yakman, Big Bad is an evil sun spirit who melts the glaciers, Aslan as yeti-saint who agrees to be sacrificed by drowning in a mountain lake.
  • Thaumo-industrial archipelago civilization, evil Luddite wizard trying to raise the sea and drown it, Tumnus as clockwork techno-sprite, Aslan as half-dragon artificer genius. The statues are all rundown clockmen awaiting daring rewinding
  • Dark Ages Ireland, Jadis/Morrigan is slaying all the cattle. Tumnus is a non-annoying leprechaun, Aslan is Mannanan mac Lir, all the dungeons are mound-and-passage tombs, the Stone Table is at Newgrange.
  • Post-apoc wasteland-crawl for a bunch of characters whose plane crashed travelling between other, safer place. Out here the White Witch has Immortan Joe-like control of water sources and Aslan is the name of a decentralised resistance movement. Tumnus is a revolting mutant teaching A Lesson About Tolerance.
  • If your players are fantasy-illiterate, just replay the book and see if they notice.

Narniaphobes take note, the fact that Aslan is here reworked as several entities with varying levels of in-campaign religious significance is a clue that the Jesus stuff really doesn’t matter and can be neatly surgically excised. I’m sure you can do better than those 4, though, or you can just cherrypick scenes - sneaking around the castle of petrified statues reviving them is especially good.

Not to return to the Jesus stuff when we don’t really need to, but quite a lot of continuing to love Narnia as an adult is about trying to pull away from that stuff and recover the proper, adventurous joy of the books - which is the part that first grabs you as a kid and you couldn’t care less what an allegory is. There’s loads of writing on the subject - this is good - but one of the very best ways would be to remake the whole thing as a campaign, wherein - even allowing for the overarching plot - your players can make their own meaning. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe isn’t even the only Narnia book that would make a good campaign, though - they actually all would, in different ways. LWW is the most conventional campaign, one for first-timers, but the others are more offbeat and fertile and provocative - they have more weird and cherrypickable ideas and settings and NPCs. So much so I’m gonna do a post on each. Stay tuned.

PS We do not talk about the movies.Even Tilda. We can talk about the BBC stuff, tho, but skeptically.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Fire Beneath

The White Sun, the holy face of god, heats the world from above, but the Fire heats the world from beneath, and keeps the land from dying when snow smothers it. This is where the dwarves come from, the black tunnels beneath the world, where they mine coal and rubies, bitumen and opals, the fruits the world above desires. Their great settlements, subterranean cities strung out along precious seams, are in the barren, fireswept expanses northeast of Vyrhrad, but many of them live now under the sky, trading and labouring, foregoing the treasures below but also the dangers: the sudden fall of rock, the magma like a gaping wound, the choking, unseen gas. They have black eyes and copper skin, thin black hair and thin black blood, and they cough cinders and spit soot.

The mountains and mines of the dwarves are so far across the boreal forests and the tundra that their cities there are near-unknown to outsiders. The dwarves do not have visitors, but only the curious or the foolish travel across the empty places of the world for weeks to come to a place they can barely live – for the dwarves do not feel the extremities of heat under which others suffer. Their cities are long, linear chains of settlement strung beneath the earth along galleries and pits and natural caverns, like single huge entities digging deeper and deeper away from the world above. There are stories of city-caravans seeking deeper and deeper, unseen by others for centuries, lost perhaps to the hazards of the deeper Fire.

In the deep winter, where the sun barely rises above the spitting mountains, their warmer glow drowning its pale one, another kind of caravan makes ready, above the mines, awaiting the hardest freezing of the snow: the great sled-convoys, hundreds of vehicles, dragged by black ponies and by the dwarves themselves, piled high with mineral treasure. The journey to Vyrhrad and the other great cities of men takes until the first stirring of spring, and the return months more. Some of the convoys are imperial tribute, and some are trade, for the things the industrious, unindustrial dwarves do not make. They are
dangerous journeys, and where the dwarves die along the way, they raise memorials, to guard against the misfortune of being buried far from from and shallow in the earth.

I have been posting a fair bit lately about the para-Aral Sea and its elves and other inhabitants as a feature of a possible medieval Russian(ish) setting: but there's more to it than the Dry Sea (though there'll be more of it soon enough). Russia (or I suppose the former USSR if we're talking the Aral Sea too) is of course Quite Large and contains Quite a Lot of Interesting Things, like, say, the volcanic peninsula of Kamchatka, which is like if Alaska's landscape and Hawaii's volcanism met and had an extremely metal baby. It is where dwarves come from. It – beneath it - is where many of them still live, in deep, glittering volcanic seams, raw cracks in the earth weeping coal and diamond, rubies like beads of blood, opals like maggots in the wound.

It's like a grindingly dangerous Yenisean-flavoured version of Bism, the glimpsed world of fruit-jewels in The Silver Chair (one of these days I'mma post about Narnia and it's gonna be alarmingly obsessive. We are all dangerously undervaluing the D&Dability of Narnia), and of course it is one of those Suspiciously Adventuregenic Societies. Dwarvish PCs are more likely to come from the quite extensive communities of dwarves now living in mainly human cities, lots of them doing stuff related to the trade convoys. But they all have a cousin back home who could use a hand.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Corpses shall be exquisite or they shall not be at all

China Miéville’s new novella The Last Days of New Paris has just appeared in the US but isn’t coming out in the UK for six months, presumably for arcane publishing industry reasons - an ancient astronomical clock churning its gears slowly in a basement in Bloomsbury, calculating publicity-friendly lunar alignments, oiled occasionally with the blood of increasingly pale interns, has pronounced the Old World omens good for February. I am also in the UK (and also in publishing, so solidarity with the exsanguinated interns), but I ordered The Last Days of New Paris transatlantically in a moment of impatience having just finished something else of his. I can therefore inform you that The Last Days of New Paris is, in order, a good thesis on surrealism, a very good short novel, a great title and an absolutely amazing role-playing game, though it is not the last of these things in what we bourgeois mortals temporally understand as ‘yet’.

(Worth noting here that Miéville is of course a known D&D player and via Zak even a sort of peripheral OSR presence, so I would not be surprised if some of the below had occurred to him. This is all intended to a tribute to this book and to his body of work, which I urge you to go and buy. Nor is this new one even necessarily the most D&Dable of his books. Anyway, this post will not be spoilery but it will be improved if you read the book.)

The Last Days of New Paris is a kind of High Pulp novella of an alternate French resistance, in a timeline in which by 1950 WW2 is still ongoing and Paris still Nazi-occupied. At some point during the war as we know it a resistance fighter affiliated with Surrealist artists set off some kind of bomb in the city and surrealism...became real? Actualised? Was realized? 

"A blast, an acceleration, the distillate, the spirit, the history, the weaponized soul of convulsive beauty went critical."

Whatever: the novel is not as clever-clever po-mo as I am risking being about it, but rather
Dora Maar's Sans Titre. This is
definitely an encounter.
creates an alternate Paris in which Surrealist artworks and creations (referred to as manifs, most of them genuine, as carefully and playfully noted in the back of the book) run riot and whole sections of the city are overlain with dream-realities, surreal-mundane junk-objects swarming and piling in the corners of bombed-out cafes. In response to which (this is where it really gets pulp) the Nazis and Nazi-aligned elements within the Catholic church made a contract with literal Hell to enlist the help of actual demons, who now also roam the increasingly nightmarish city.

Sensibly, Paris has been cordoned off and quarantined, and in it the SS, the Wehrmacht, the forces of Hell (some enslaved by the Reich, some gone rogue), Surrealists (notably the group called Main a plume), non-Surrealist resistance (Communists of various stripes etc.) and actual Surrealist artworks fight it out endlessly. 

You can probably see where I’m going with this, huh. Let’s break it down and then build it back up, Surrealist collage-style.

The setting

Max Ernst, depicting one of the more
warped parts of New Paris
Handily, someone else has already mapped Paris - several times, even. A map like this is period-appropriate and will serve well: Paris’ urban geography is game-friendly too, with the long geometric boulevards for easy navigation and the tight-packed apartments and courtyards in between for house-to-house dungeoneering. Best of all is the division of Paris into 20 arrondissements, something Miéville makes use of in the novel for demarcating territory and which are a gift to the gamer who wishes to come up with differing neighbourhoods and appropriate encounter tables and local powers for them. The fact that there are (d)20 of them is the kind of useful, meaningful-seeming random confluence that the surrealists themselves dined out on.

There are also lots of good landmarks, obviously: the novel makes use of a few, the Arc de Triomphe having become a giant self-sustaining urinal and the Eiffel tower having lost its bottom half. If your players can reach the floating top section there will no doubt be something rewardingly murderous waiting for them. Other tourists hotspots cry out for surrealist use: it is technically ahistorical to have your players be stalked through the well-mapped megadungeon of the Louvre by the living Winged Victory of Samothrace (because most of the artwork was moved out of there during the war for safety) but you should do it anyway, and clearly we are leaving so-called history behind. The ultimate dungeon, as the book makes clear, is the Metro, where gloopy art nouveau signage made of iron vines will coil round your throat when you’re not looking.

The stars

The novel has as its protagonists Surrealist partisans, the Main a plume, and probably this is what PCs would mostly be too, but there’s no reason why you can't have non-Surrealist resistance members as PCs as well. Access to guns smuggled into Paris by Stalin is probably less fun than engaging with the artwork, but some people will be up for it: it’ll be like the divisions between magic-using classes (the Surrealists) and non-magic-using ones (the mundanes).

As with the magic/not-magic metadivision, there should then be further true classes within, but not too many: among the latter, maybe like so -
  • Communists (access to outside aid)
  • nationalists (i.e. right-wing but anti-Nazi French, the tatters of the Establishment with the attendant privileges)
  • apolitical rogues (with thief skills, black market contacts etc.)
  • infiltrating British SOE operatives, Violette Szabo-style
  • True (and therefore in New Paris) renegade clergy, with some (loosely interpreted) divine magic       
As for the Surrealists this is where the deep problem and equally deep attraction of this game swims into view - how do you make surrealism gameable? See below, in part. But this needs to be, on some carefully limited level, a reality-warping class and one (as in the novel) capable of interacting in unique ways with the much more reality-warping entities also present in the city. Under that broad umbrella, different currents suggest themselves -
  • the entity whisperer, who knows how to treat with wild surrealism (closer to the novel's protagonist)
  • the ward against the weird (someone with some measure of resistance, a defensive class)
  • the wielder of the weird (someone with some measure of active influence, an indirectly aggressive class)
- but probably more as aspects and directions that one can take for a single, overarching
Dorothea Tanning. For a 'ballet',
supposedly, but most experts argue she
was prepping for an Underdark campaign.
Surrealist class. If that class is half your party, or more, no worries. 

The novel suggests possible, carefully-monitored space for free agents of Hell to appear as PCs too (mortals, that is - freelancers for Satan), presumably along the D&D warlock lines. This would be the class (if you feel it necessary) for straightforward offensive magic, otherwise unavailable, but it would come with some hefty penalties too. If you want to play as Nazis, yuk. Work it out for yourself.       

The system

Actually, I dunno. I am an humble player of mock-medieval games and don’t know what existing systems would work best as an armature onto which to weld the things thought of here, requiring as they do mid-20th c technology and classes. Suggestions on a postcard please. I’ve never played CoC but presumably that might work? Or heavily bodge one up from, uh, LotFP? Perhaps. But whatever it is it needs to accommodate…

The surrealism

Its Celebes. Run!
This is the difficult bit, but also the exciting bit. The Nazis and the demons we can stat up easy, and the streets and the buildings we can map out no problem. Making a game genuinely surreal - truly oneiric and startling and irreal - is the trick of it, just as it is with writing and with art and with film-making. Mieville does a stunningly good job in the novel of infusing surrealism not just into flat descriptive narration but into kinetic, visceral action. This is a hard thing to do with words, just as making the surreal distinct from the merely mishmash odd in collages is hard, and chancy.

This guy specifically is a character
in the novel. Breton, Lamba, Tanguy.
But it's something the RPG is actually, probably, uniquely well-suited to do, as Miéville shows. There are unique and individual artworks roaming New Paris - the setting's tarrasque is Celebes, Max Ernst's elephant - but the chief marker of Miéville's surrealist city, the chief antagonists and amibguous NPCs for your party, are the so-called exquisite corpses, the very much 'alive' mash-up monsters arising from the Surrealist game of the same name  (when I was a kid we called it 'heads, bodies and legs', but, same), iterations of which wander the deserted boulevards with their legs or pincers or tree trunks as appropriate. These are such beautifully RPG beasties it's - ahem - surreal: iterative, contingent, a game already within a game. You could make random tables for the relevant bits, like the abominations in Red and Pleasant Land, or - more fun, more surreal - you could have your players make a bunch before the session begins, without them knowing what they're doing. The D&D party is the perfect size for this, and the perfect collocation of collaborative weirdos. And remember where it all started, with Gary cutting up and gluing randomly together plastic monsters in his basement: the first and most exquisite corpses of all. 

More on this sometime. L'OSR sera surréel ou elle ne sera pas.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The court architect Phraanc L'loiid Rait

Still thinking about the dead Aral Sea equivalent and the vaguely Arabian elves who lived by it before they murdered it with their grandiose plans. Did you know that among history's finest instances of a grandiose plan – a vaguely Arabian grandiose plan, no less – is Frank Lloyd Wright's unrealized plan for reworking downtown Baghdad? Behold -

bigger here http://66.media.tumblr.com/b72fd83a1624bafcf7a5055788669ea9/tumblr_mrfhehXfhK1syx7edo1_1280.jpg
Obviously this was never built, and indeed it's a fairly supreme example of somewhat cringeworthy Western imposition of their idea of what a native culture might have been like (neither here or there right now, but it's interesting how Wright was a master borrower of other architectural cultures in the US but went to the bad on the rare occasion he he tried to actually work in those cultures), a bit like if someone tried to actually build the Baghdad of that issue of Sandman. And indeed Wright bigged it up with much patronising talk of Aladdin and Ali Baba.

But as a place for some adventuring, wow: as a plan for the overplanned, overdone, overpatterned city of the decadent and dying elves, well, all the work is done for you: the sweeping avenues, the encounter-friendly narrow bridges, the pleasure pavilions with their cruel pinnacles, and in this excellent post even some nice interior dungeon maps (there's a planetarium under the opera house! Put this in it!) and the requisite bazaar where you can allow your party to waste a session if you are feeling generous. In the salt-choked, sand-strewn cities of the elves, there is little now that is needful to buy: but a desperate elf might part with immortal gifts for a mortal price.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Dead Sea, the Undying Lake

Nothing grows in the Dry Sea: but there are fields, and blooms, and flowers, for there is salt. The body of the sea is gone, but its bones, jagged crystals in ivory and rust and pure snow white, persist in pristine drifts along the edges of the great depression. Salts of reaction and combustion, salts that tint and temper, innocuous and undetectable toxic salts, ash-like natron which makes the dead inviolable. The lake blooms, and where it blooms, it can be harvested.

The salt farmers, heavily bandaged, skin cracking and eyes ruddy, work the pans by night and sleep beneath white canvas by day, in week-long expeditions of half a dozen, travelling from the half-nomad human hamlets east of the lake, from where their product filters slowly, often secretly, to Vyrhrad in the north and over the mountains into the true east, and to the steppes between. They bring no beasts onto the lake, nothing that can crash through the crust to the pockets of mud beneath (though men do this too, and are lost forever), nothing that needs excessive water and fodder (though men who get lost on the lake die screaming of thirst, surrounded by salt). They carry away their harvest on their own backs, tasting and sifting into grades and strains. They guard the knowledge of the best deposits jealously, above all from their clients, and they take any opportunity to slaughter their competitors and leave their corpses incorruptible amid the salt.

The natron, most precious of minerals, they sell to the horsemen who embalm their leaders and their priests in it before they set them beneath the hills to die forever: and more and more, the salt-farmers do thus also with their own dead, in sandier burials. As do the horsemen, the salt-farmers revere this death and revile those others who seek natron for its applications to undeath. They wage an endless war against the resurrectionists and would-be necromancers who trouble the lake.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Horror of the Orrery

Right at this moment my players are working their way through the tower home of an astronomer-wizard (he's currently near-catatonic on the top floor but they don't know this yet). What do astronomer-wizards have in their towers? Scale models of the solar system, duh. But bigger than you're thinking. And interactive. Like this:

The orrery covers the entire diameter of the tower, so it's a perfectly round room, double height (20ft) - it’s entered from a trapdoor in the ceiling of the room below. On opening it, you’ll feel a slight tug: the room beyond has false gravity, such that everything floats at 10ft off the ground and is gradually pulled towards the centre, where there is an artificial miniature sun, a fixed point of intense heat and light. If you’re not a planet on a set orbit you move 5ft towards it every turn. Bad shit happens if you touch it (2d12 fire damage a turn, plus a STR15 check to escape its pull). The walls of the room are all covered in copper sheeting, which is engraved with angles and trajectories and intricate forms of notations – extremely hard to get any kind of grip on. Way over on the other side of the room is the next door, in the ceiling. You have to launch off things to move anywhere.

Luckily, you have the planets, big bronze spheres (varying from like a basketball to a big beachball) which silently orbit the sun, though a good deal of force could knock one off track. They're deeply engraved with meridians and parallels and whathaveyou, and so grippable with a moderate dex test, if you can get to one. Possibly your campaign has already established what's in the solar system, but if not I recommend taking 6 or 7 dice – mixture of d4s, 6s and 8s – and rolling them, then setting them 5 or 10ft apart in a line outward from the sun. Each of them moves in a steady circle the number of squares/hexes you rolled per turn.

Naturally, some of them should have little moons and maybe rings. Less naturally but more interestingly, at least one should orbit in the other direction from the others. One of them is hollow, too, randomise it – it can be broken open quite easily, containing a pitted, fist-size chunk of meteoric iron, which has numerous applications. Any astronomy-based magic used in this room will go haywire.

My players had plenty of fun/trouble trying to get across this thing without any opposition, but if you did want opposition, you wanna go for something nuisancy and with a flying speed. Its tactic should be to fuck with the PCs until one of them flies into the sun, not the all-out attack. An imp acting as a record-keeper for the wizard would be ideal, an imp with scrolls of astronomical observations bobbing in front of it, tracking the whirl of the planets, awaiting propitious alignments and eclipses.

More fun than this fucking film or your money back

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Grandest of all the Patterns in Nature

More if/when I buy/read the actual book, but just this thought is too good to pass up -
... strange forests that, because of the inclination of the Earth’s axis, grew in almost permanent darkness at the south pole. “These forests of the polar night,” Nield explains, describing an ancient landscape in the present tense, “withstand two seasons: one of feeble light and one of unremitting dark. Today’s world has no equivalent of this eerie ecosystem. Their growth rings show that each summer these trees grow frenetically. Those nearer the coast are lashed by megamonsoon rains roaring in from [the lost continent] of Tethys, the thick cloud further weakening the feeble sunshine raking the latitudes at the bottom of the world.”
- this from here on the subject of 'no-analogue landscapes', environments that have existed once and never again. The polar forests of the Cretaceous were the products of an extreme greenhouse effect and overflowing seas, providing for thick vegetation even at the poles
where there were, environmental fluctuations be damned, six months of darkness and six
months of light, world without end. Everything grew like crazy for half the year and then tried hard not to die for the other half. It was full of dinosaurs. (For those that recall the show, there was a great Walking with Dinosaurs ep about this.)

Obviously, this is an outrageously good environment for adventuring. Endless night, endless light problems, endless frost, vast beasts angry at the disturbance. Definitely the north of Vyrhrad has polar forests like this. There are dinosaurs and colour-appropriate dragons (white, green, black) and...chiefly dinosaurs, I guess? The Monster Manual wants me to have remorhazes but I don't really like remorhazes. The bigger dinosaurs will pick their teeth with them They are the dry(ish) land equivalent of the northnorth. Players are destined for them.

But more than this specific environment, point is: there are and were and will be amny more environments than exist right now. All such fucked-up places that your mind conceives are possible. Probably they have already happened. Make them happen.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Or you could do a perfume-making campaign

This really astoundingly beautiful art was created by Katie Scott, I think for a perfume ad campaign? But clearly it is in truth an inventory of things found in the sorceror's workshop: the kind of half-witch, half-alchemist of the nightmare counter-Renaissance we all avidly desire to simulate. Click for bigger but w/o the humbers. I numbered it for d20 rolling once your players start looting: or you could print it and make it a drop-table instead.

1- Clearblossom. If eaten, the flower, above the waterline, grants 60' darkvision and advantage on perception and investigation checks for d8 hours. The root, below the waterline, does the opposite (inc. disabling darkvision). Both can also be used to make an infusion which lasts for d4 hours but means there's more to go around.

2 – Sylph liver. Here seen still wrapped in some of its unwilling donor's flesh, with the connecting veins severed. Can be swallowed: painful and unnatural (Con save or vomit it and all other recently eaten food up and suffer a level of exhaustion) but if kept down metabolises all toxins for 3d6 days, neutralising them.

3 – Pathwater. Distilled from cave moss: pour on the ground and it flows to the nearest exit of any underground space. Massively intoxicating to dwarves and gnomes.

4 – Luck diode. This one is obvious. Whichever player claims it can reroll their next d20 roll.

5 – Gaiarium. Needs successful nature and arcana checks to use – generates perfect rootless growing conditions for the plant attached to the left arm by fully simulating all the sunlight, water etc necessary. Can duplicate a plant item in d4 days.

6 – Dodecagate. Once a day, an ability check roll can be replaced with a 12 (before applying modifiers and before knowing if the previous roll succeeded or failed).

7 – Eygg. Laid by chickens raised in a box with entirely mirrored sides (which the chickens will tend to constantly attack). 'Hatches' after d4 weeks, cracking open into an egg-shaped eyeball (or an eyeball-looking egg) which will transfer what it sees back to the owner (as clairvoyance). Can't move but can live indefinitely, if fed large amounts of salt daily. Otherwise dies after d4 days.

8 – Peacock. Mundane peacock: peacock feathers have various magical application but the best use of a peacock is generally finding a nearby aristo whose garden needs brightening up and selling it to them for an extortionate price.

9 – Oxiode. Small, heavy crystal that absorbs and negates 50hp worth of fire and lightning damage, at which point it explodes, as fireball.

10 – Hushweed. Eaten or made into an infusion and drunk (durations and amounts as clearblossom above), it makes you entirely silent (inc. unable to talk).

11 – Spectre's fingers. Another edible or infusible plant, as 1. Grants those who consume it a spectral, controllable hand (as mage hand) for the duration.

12 – Schist anemone. One of very few to grow underground rather than underwater. It has a mild poison (statistically as per violet fungus) if you get within tentacle's reach but its real value is that produces natural sovereign glue to adhere to schist outcrops. Hence the large chunk of stone it comes with. Glue production is slow but constant.

13 – Geode of potential. Plausibly contains immense mineral wealth. Tell this to your players. Have them tell it to jewellers, nobles, merchants: everyone who is told will magically believe it to contain increasingly untold riches: rubies like goose eggs, emeralds like a maiden's fist, amethysts like a stag's heart, etc etc etc. They always turn out to contain a small amount of pyrite, and nothing else, once broken open. Can your players whip up the speculation, resist the temptation to open it themselves, and then leave town right after the auction?

14 – Fineflower, with apparatus. Any liquid siphoned around it and into the green glass receptacle becomes pure, drinkable water.

15 – Fatroot. Fleshy root mass burns for 2d6 hours, producing no light but copious amounts of repulsive-smelling black smoke.

16 – Roll on whatever potion table you like best. It's the result, but also it makes the user crave further doses obsessively.

17 – Potter's Dawn. Tip a measure of the liquid mercury in the thimble into the preparation in the pot (closely guarded secret, but maybe you can find out if you've not killed the alchemist yet) and a small sun will dawn out of the pot and shine for 4d20 minutes, with all the effects of the real one. The pot is big but not too big – like the size and weight of a full backpack.

18 – The Mourner's Palm. Produces uncontrollable bouts of weeping, sobbing etc when eaten or drunk in an infusion (as above). Big with professional mourners.

19 – Echo-cylinder. Filled with a mixture of liquid reagents; when the cylinder is struck with the small silver gong, the liquid will boil off leaving behind a small, perfect scale model of all the empty space into which the sound travelled (d4x100ft under normal dungeon circs, but obviously very changeable).

20 – Judge's Velvet. When eaten/infused as above, makes the instructions of the user function as command spell. Tastes completely repulsive.

Friday, 12 August 2016


At dawn, on ridges of sand and salt across the Dry Sea, can sometimes be seen the spindly, impossible silhouette of the fog beetles: six man-high legs supporting a bundle of black carapace, pitched slightly forward into the gentle, chill wind. Rarely is the fog hanging over the saltpans even visible, but the gentle chill in the air is there, and as the sun rises droplets of water collect across the black chitin and trickle down to the unsettling, articulated face at its front, its mandibles whispering endless mantras.

The beetles came from somewhere else: there are old stories of them, and still colonies of them, to the south, in the true deserts. But in the Dry Sea they found their ideal, a dead place where only the least essentials were provided, and where they could meditate endlessly on the most essential things. Their ancient hermeticism was raised to its highest order along the dead shores and the stranded fishing fleets, their endless mystical calculus enacted in the lines they danced in fine dry silt and the astral cycles they could trace with pitiless precision.  

In the true deserts they had been feared and shunned. In the new desert, there was no folklore, no legacy, no taboo: and though there were almost no other living things, word began to filter north and west to Vyrhrad and its mystics and malcontents. The Stenocarian Order - a term, a concept, only ever applied to them externally, one almost beneath their understanding - began to be faced with seekers. With disciples.

Some of the beetles detest them, and flee them. Some of them have come to rely on them. As they hum and tick and whisper, seekers cluster around them, tend to them, defend them, record their every mantra and recitation and calculation. Many do not live long, but others come.

The most faithful are accorded the highest sacrament: to drink the water from the beetle's carapace as dawn breaks. It is said that knowledge of the stars and of the futures of the earth follows.

Giant beetles are pretty fragile for a party clever enough to go for the legs, and they don't have functional wings, but they move like a six-legged racehorse and aren't slowed by soft and treacherous sand. 50% of them have 2d4 disciples, low-level monks and clerics who will happily die creating a diversion. Most beetles are too busy contemplating the higher mysteries to really stop and chat – including to their deluded disciples – but if you can do them a service their knowledge is extensive and their word is their bond. They have no material culture but are very evasive on the subject of certain inexplicable rock assemblages in the deeper desert.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Longest Voyage

What happens to a ghost ship when the sea it sails becomes itself a ghost? The mere disappearance of hundreds of cubic miles of water is no release from eternal servitude. Somewhere in the Dry Sea, Commodore Ruzin’s men continue to curse his name with shrivelled lips, backs arced as they haul its unreal weight across the desolation.

The stories of the Ashmara passing through other ships like a cloud, slipping from sight where the moonlight struck it, gliding visibly inches above the surface of the sea - these were only ever stories. Like all stories about the sea that vanished, they are legends now – but unlike the stories of the sturgeon large enough to founder galleons and the tide that runs red every 77 months, they always were legends. The Ashmara is a ship of oak and iron, and its crew are flesh and bone. When the sea still was, they sailed it endlessly, enacting the Commodore's last command – keep her worthy. Keep her sailing. I shall return – and now that the sea is gone and the world is sand and salt and stone, they keep it still. They have no other choice.

If Commodore Ruzin still lives, he is close to four hundred years old, and though there are elves who remember knowing – hating, fearing, hiring – him, there are no humans who do. Ruzin, they say, was a human like any other, and most likely he met his end in the stateroom of an elvish palace, or perhaps comfortable in the north, swathed in furs in a great country estate, the spires of Vyryn visible in the distance. Perhaps. But while he did live, he had strange powers – how else can one man dare so much and cheat so many? – and his word endures. His ship endures. His crew endures.

Travellers in the Dry Sea have spoken of seeing, through the boundless shimmer, a ship, two-masted, high-sided, and before it near one hundred men, yokes and ropes across their shoulders, hauling it across the salt. They do not need water, nor food – but then, there is none to be had. They do not need sleep, and through the icy night they haul just as through the savage day. The course they plot is unknown, but though few have ever seen them – and fewer still believed what they are seeing – many have seen the deep track scored through the white-gold crust where the ship's hull has passed. Some have sought to map it. Some have sought to follow it. Some have sought to speak with the crew. Their answers are not recorded.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

with a body starred all over

The D&D salamander’s accepted status as ‘angry fire snaketaur’ is an ongoing shame. The 5e Monster Manual already has a frankly bizarre surfeit of snake-beings, between the yuan-ti, the naga, the marilith and the couatl (in the case of the yuan-ti, the 5e MM falls into the bad old ways that it mostly otherwise avoids by providing not only too many subdivisions of yuan-ti but then also a suite of unexplained and unnecessary sub-sub-divisions for the malison). Nor is the salamander more interesting or useful as a fire-centric monster than the elemental (more, um, firey), the hellhound (more hellish), the magmin (more endearing), the efreet (more personality and true villain potential), or even the azer (if you really feel the need to create a society of fire people). They’re classic instances of a monster that has intelligence and civilization and all that, such that they make for poor random dungeon beasties, but that in no way makes you want to plot out a society of them for your players to visit or plan an adventure around them.

(For extra confusion, the 5e MM also binds them to the ‘firesnake’, the purported immature salamander. The firesnake is really just an unexciting but mildly useful fire-damage-dealing nasty suitable for use as the pet of a low-level alchemist or something that has been bedevilling the furnace of some local dwarves. The rest of the MM stuff - tying in salamanders as talented smiths but explicitly less so than azers and as sometime slaves in the City of Brass - is similarly unlikely to lead to you ever actually using them.)

The limpness of the D&D salamander is particularly a pity because the scientific and

folkloric profile of the salamander is fecund as fuck D&D-wise, especially if we leave behind entirely the fire thing - which, as you probably know, has vague but counterintuitive roots in the tendency of salamanders to emerge from damp logs once you put them in a fire, but this is because salamanders - like so many other living things - do not like being put in a fire
(and do like hiding in damp logs, being aquatic and not at all interested in fire). The person who entrenched the idea was Paracelsus (real and highly D&Dable name Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim), an irritating systematiser-alchemist-mystic of the kind who did so much to make the Renaissance so dull and who conceived of salamanders as fire elementals. Paracelsus’ chief legacy to D&D is the invention of the word gnome (possibly just a misspelling on his part), but he envisioned them, rather broadly, as earth elementals and spirits of wisdom, and the game has been happy to abandon his legacy in this respect. High time the same happened to salamanders. Here are some you can use in your game without ever rolling for fire damage.

Olm – Olms live in Europe's largest natural dungeon, the Balkan karst, and were at various times held to be kin to humans, since they have the same skin colour as white people, and to be young dragons, since most people only ever saw them after heavy rains washed them out of the caves below the earth where the great dragons evidently lived. They are blind, like
many cave-dwelling beasts (tho as far as Gary was concerned this was true only for the hook horror), and they literally never grow up, spending all their time in arrested adolescence without fully maturing. They look like they might crawl out of your belly button to strangle you. They're too small to make for real enemies in a campaign without upsizing them and then they're mostly just snakes, so here's how I'd use them:

The dragons in the caverns beneath the world have no use for children; why would they, when they never die themselves? But the dragons remember all things that they have known in the days since the foundations of the mountains were laid, and in their slumber, their memories grow and thicken and ooze from the dragons' great pores into the rivers that never see sunlight, and sometimes the memories come thereby to the surface, or more commonly to the limestone tunnels and caves within the higher karst. Each olm is an idea, a memory, a piece of information: consume it live and whole and learn it. Much that was never written, or was written and destroyed, or cannot be written, lives on in this way. In the city, the great academies keep men whose duty it is to consume the olms that are brought to them, and to record what they learn. Such places pay well: and when the rumours begin that an olm has surfaced who knows and is a great forgotten secret, they will pay almost anything. 

Hellbender – I mean obviously you want to use something called the hellbender in your game. They're ugly bastards that look 700 years old and live in the Appalachian backwoods so they're clearly a gift to Call of Cthulhu campaigns full of hillbillies worshipping something that should have been forgotten. But they also have a kind of skinny, snappy, speedy vibe

and a angry, streamlined feel – hence the name, presumably – that makes them a good
candidate for the kind of thing that jumps out of a river and tries to tear your throat out, or waits until you step into the water and then fastens on your ankle and pulls you under. All the way down to hell, probably. They're also hated by fishermen who believe that they smear lines with slime and steal hooks – amphibian trickster spirits. Depending on how big you want them to be, stats are per the MM's crocodile or plesiosaur, or even the frighteningly dangerous giant crocodile. They can be a random river hazard, but I can see slaadi keeping these things as pets, too.

Pacific giant salamander – The Pacific North-West has a cluster of related giant salamanders (giant in this case meaning only about a foot long, sadly) which bark like dogs. Darndest thing. Anything that can bark like a dog is, of course, a potential guard animal.

The hag's lair, deep in the swamp, is surrounded on all sides by salamanders, waiting in the murky water and curled, unnoticed, round crumbling, moss-thick logs. When something passes by, they watch it go with slimy eyes, turning their slow, neckless heads after it and then yawning wide and barking a deep, gurgling yell that shakes the still waters of the swamp. The hag looks up from braiding the hair of the drowned. 

Iberian ribbed newt – lots of salamanders are poisonous – generally, as with toads, in the generic 'covered in poisonous slime' manner. The Iberian ribbed newt is considerably more metal than that, however - it has holes in its sides through which it can, at will, project its own spiked ribs, which are tipped with poison. They also regenerate – as do many amphibians – and thanks to a completely insane piece of 90s Russian space experimentation, we know that they regenerate twice as fast when in space. Do with this information as you see fit, sci-fi gamers.

Giant salamander – There are two kinds of these, Chinese and Japanese, but they're almost the same. They're massive – 6 feet long and hefty, like a crocodile but with an adorable

dopey smile and skin like the bed of one of those slow-moving, mossy mountain streams,
which is anyway where they like to hang out. Pictures of them wandering into the middle of Japanese towns will make you say 'oh right, that's why they came up with Pokemon'. They're also probably the basis for kappa, the things you placate with a cucumber with a person's name on it. Despite the goofy look, they also seem impossibly sagacious. I can think of few beasts better at fulfilling the key role of 'font of wisdom your players have to trek to a remote area to consult': the huge, slow thing rising gradually out of the riverbed, weeds hanging off it, little eyes popping. It's hard to imagine them in combat but they'd probably have near-bottomless HP. Cucumber seems a limited, though amusing, way to placate them. Maybe this:

As all children know, the salamander has no name. 'Salamander' is just a word, and saying it to the great beast in the river angers her: salamanders are those little worms that live in logs, she snorts, and her snort is like the sound of a dam breaking a mile away. She knows many things, but she has no name, and she hates those who do. Bring her your name – carve it onto something she will want to eat, something fresh and green and rich and fibrous – and give it to her when she raises her great head from the waters to speak with you. Give it to her, and she will eat it, and take your name too, and you will be nameless, your name forgotten by you and all who know you. And then she will tell you what you wish to know.

There's also lots of mileage in salamander-derived items: your game should be a trade in their poisonous slime, and there should be alchemists trying to learn the secrets of their regenerative powers. Nor did we even get on to extinct salamander-like amphibians, which were incredible. Another time.

In Japanese myths, heroes kill giant salamanders. Your heroes should too.