Sunday, 25 September 2016

The House of the Unfolding Law

The House of the Unfolding Law is a monastery (of sorts) two days' travel from the nearest major city. Perhaps it is in a minimalist O'Keeffe desert: perhaps it is in the middle of endless rows of snowbound pines: perhaps it is on a scrap of an island, one of the sharp limestone outcrops bleeding out from the long limestone coast. Wherever it is, the handful of locals will not remember it not having been there. It is impossible to see all at once: it appears through the treeline at first as a single white arcade, or arches begin to rise in careful succession out of the water before your boat grinds up on the rocky beach.

It is a seemingly endless series of arches and pillars and their resultant higher expressions: arcades, colonnades, courtyards. There are sudden high towers of arches and deep wells wrapped around with openings: there are elegant stepped pyramids and long covered walkways. In places a third element appears – minimal stepped stairs, without rails. It is always, at first, disorienting to visitors: they may think it is endless, and they may think that it is repetitive. The monks will smile quietly and observe that these things are not so, not on the scale the visitor imagines. The monks – who wear robes of the same murky cream as the walls – will claim that there are no two spaces the same in the House. They will point out that the arcades are all imperfect: they have blind arches and half-arches and other arches inset within them, rising floors that ensure the rhythms of the pillars are broken, angles that are not quite true, partial staircases rising and falling to nothing. The monks will say that this is the truth of the House: that there is no true order in the world, but that we perceive it to be otherwise. They will not discuss how the House came to be.

The monks are happy enough to have visitors: certainly, they have the space. They will let anybody stay, offering thin bedrolls laid out more or less at random in the House and simple food from a communal pot: this is how the monks themselves live. They will not ask for contributions, but after a few days they will ask that visitors move on: the monks are not much interested in proselytising or offering spiritual teachings. It is far from clear who they worship or if they have a god at all. There are perhaps two dozen of them – of all races and genders – in the House, though you will never see them all assembled. They do little to maintain the House: the more open parts of it are full of birds' nests and drifts of leaf litter, though the structure of the House itself is always sound. Away from the edges of the House, into its middle – though it is so irregular that trying to travel 'inwards' is often confounding. Deep in the heart of the House there are still sudden clumps of forest and naked earth, silent courtyards surrounded by the silent arcades.

The monks will not like it if you try to get deep into the House. They will offer, at first, to guide you back to where your things are: they have an infallible knowledge of the layout of the House. After a time they will tell you the deeper parts are not safe. Eventually they will intervene to prevent you. The monks are moderately well-trained in unarmed combat and extraordinarily resistant to pain and to psychic intrusion, but above all they will use the structure of the House as a weapon, forcing people off high platforms, ducking through arches, drawing the party off in different directions. Other monks will arrive to help. If they feel truly threatened, they will draw the threat not away but deeper into the House.

At the centre is the House's heart, a perfect arched cube of a room, the only such room in the whole structure, 3 stacked rows of 3 arches on each side. It has no floor. It goes down forever. Among the monks, the greatest blessing is to be permitted to fall into it and pass beyond existence into the Law. The most solemn of their duties, however, and the highest
honour is to carry out into the world one of the heavy fist-sized cubes, arched on each side and filled with blackness inside, that appears every 7 years somewhere within the House, and to bury it in fertile earth in a distant land.

Inspired by Xavier Corbero's home/art project. All you need for this a good way of randomly generating spaces and rooms: Vornheim has one, or you could use Donjon or similar. The trick here is that all the spaces flow into each other all the time, since everything is open arches. For the truly stripped-down, minimalist architectural approach, keep it very simple: spaces have two sides of d100ft each and d4 levels, all with arches every 10ft (although not always - introduce at least one irregularity into every room, like a properly made carpet); arcades are corridors of d4x10 ft width and d100xd4ft length. Beyond each discrete area generated like this is...another one. But throw in stairs, drops, dead ends too as you see fit, for an interesting fighting environment. It doesn't have to be 10% random: let the Law Unfold in your mind, and be guided by it.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Do Talking Horses roll? Supposing they don't?

The Horse and his Boy is famously the most outlying Narnia book: it doesn’t happen in Narnia, it only tangentially involves children from earth, and one of its protagonists isn’t even human. As a campaign, it feels like the DM and two very experienced players got together to intentionally do something weird (only having two PCs being a classic sign that it’s just the hardcore types trying something strange) and discovered that actually it didn’t really work. So this is not going to be one of the longer or more insightful posts in this series.

One of the things that doesn’t especially work about it is the thinly different setting of Calormen and Tashbaan, which are a form of fantasy Arabia. Fantasy Arabia is traditionally the first port of call for an author or fantasy world trying to break out of its Eurocentrism. There are some sound historical reasons for this, to do with the fact that for most of the Middle Ages attempting to leave Europe generally meant either sailing an endless sea to your certain death or interacting with Islam, and obviously Orientalism (and Orientalism in gaming specifically) has been better and longer discussed elsewhere. Basically, though Narnia as a setting has many fans - and though many people like The Horse and his Boy a great deal - nobody has ever claimed that Calormen is a particularly deep or interesting setting, and everybody for the past 30-odd years at least has also agreed it’s a hella racist one.

In this sense The Horse and his Boy is reminiscent of many clunky Arabian Nights-y settings that The Last Battle - already covered - touches on the Calormenes again and uses them mostly as strawmen but does at least incarnate their demonic god Tash, who used to terrify me as a kid. The Horse and his Boy doesn’t even manage that, and much of the plot is spent trying to leave Calormen for more European parts, there to do lots of narration and action-reporting and political commentary and other things DMs tend to overdo. All this stuff muscles out most of the real adventuring, beyond a little bit of city capering and a crawl across a desert.
have been run over the years but it doesn’t really have anything to teach us. Everyone has a curly beard and dark eyes and is solemn and cunning and cruel and so on and so on.

What is interesting about The Horse and his Boy is, obviously, the horse, which is definitely a PC and also, obviously, a horse. Again, The Last Battle touches on the issue of animal protagonists/players but this is where Lewis gets most deeply into the idea, and where we learn its rewards and its limitations. A horse PC is an outlandish idea certainly, but I don’t think there’s a party anywhere in the world that doesn't have some experience with putting an animal in a PC or ally role for at least some of the time. Transformed druids, familiars, intelligent steeds: lately our warlock drank a potion that transformed him into 82 bees for half an hour of crucial game time. This stuff is fun and it hugely expands the potential of a party - I spend a lot of time trying to outdesign a druid whose wide range of transformation options make a lot of more basic imprisonment scenarios kind of pointless.

Nevertheless there are limits to how interesting those parts of the game can be - especially for all the party members who aren’t the druid or who don’t see through the familiar’s eyes. The game experience of someone transformed into an animal or mentally inhabiting one - even an intelligent one - is radically different, sometimes usefully so (flying up high to see something distant), sometimes not (trying to operate a door handle): but whether it’s functioning as a help or a hindrance it functions always and to an enormous extent as a distancer (see also: having a telepath in the party). It’s like constantly splitting the party even if they all stay in the same room: it experientally splits the party and prevents them from experiencing an adventure together which is, after all, what we’re all here for.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that The Horse and his Boy feels like a weird experiment, interesting in itself but not to be repeated, the kind of experiment that of necessity is conducted off to the side in an isolation chamber. You probably couldn’t have a Narnia book with three Pevensie protagonists on an equal footing with a wise talking horse: you probably couldn’t run a long, conventionally satisfying campaign for an elf, a dwarf, a human and a wise talking horse. But as an offbeat mini-campaign with a couple of people willing to play around, it makes for a worthwhile off-season experiment.

Monday, 19 September 2016

take the adventure that Aslan sends us

The Last Battle is where it all ends for Narnian campaigning (though not for this series: I don't want to get into the Reading Order Debate now but I'm doing The Horse and his Boy and The Magician's Nephew at some future point). As a book it's a strange and sad one, much given to provoking moody, nostalgic conversations in adults but possibly less appreciated by children. As a campaign manual it has a decent mid-section with an interestingly fluid part, and then a long oblique discussion of how to end a campaign from which there is much to learn...

The Last Battle is a book of three acts, really, the first of which is set-up and not very gameable but is good set-up, with a false prophet storyline and that excellent thing, a decoy villain whose ostensible henchman is the power behind the throne. The rest of the set-up,

though - Tirian and Jewel investigating and getting captured - is proto-adventure as there isn’t really a party yet, just the two of them: but it might be a 0th-level learning module for those playing Tirian and Jewel, since they’re the new ones. If so it’s a classic, walking the two of them through some easy-peasy plot set-up and simple combat and then getting them captured to create the conditions for the party proper to come together.

Or, at least, the 2nd incarnation of the party, if Tirian and Jewel are the first. The Last Battle is a campaign that makes the deeply debatable, but, let’s go with it) case for a snowballing and highly experimental party, viz -

  • Tirian, Last King of Narnia (fighter/paladin, as with the other male protagonists in the series)
  • Jewel the Unicorn, who totally is a PC but god knows how this works. But he talks and is sentient so that’s fine, and is a killing machine so that’s fine too
(Then they are joined by...)
  • Eustace Scrubb (fighter/paladin again)
  • Jill Pole (ranger or possibly straight-up rogue given how much emphasis is laid on her sneaking skills)
(And then by...)
  • Poggle (dwarf-as-class)
(And then by...)
  • Farsight the eagle, attempting to out-do whoever is playing Jewel in complexity.
There’s also Puzzle the mule who is plot-crucial, unlike the usual tragically expendable
adventurers’ mule, but who is a tag-along NPC rather than a PC in his own right. Puzzle is great though and a clever NPC addition: he and his lion skin are the key to undoing the enemy’s plans but he’s deeply pathetic and sympathetic and wants nothing more than to just take the skin off, and a good Dm would play him to the hilt as Eeyore until the party began to split over whether to take the damn skin off or just kill him. There’s no reason why you couldn’t turn a previously standard pack mule into this kind of NPC to mess with your overladen party, incidentally, as long as there’s a druid or something to do the interpreting.

Fuck yeah Tash

(Ultimately, the party is also joined by basically everybody who Lewis has ever DMed for: Peter, Edmund, Lucy, even Polly and Digory who did some kind of Spelljammer campaign with Lewis back in, god, must been 1994? Nobody can quite remember. They seem cool, though. But we’ll come back to that in a second.)

The amazing expanding party - maybe you could do Farsight as an animal companion to simplify things, I guess, but however you do it’s gonna be super-annoying to handle as a DM because he can see, like, everything, for miles, and can fly - goes through a fairly great adventure sequence in the middle of the book: as a foursome they wilderness-crawl to a fortified tower/storeroom and shake it down for equipment in the calm, methodical manner of a party that knows what’s up before conducting a sneaky rescue of the donkey in which various PCs act alarmingly but brilliantly on their own initiative to advance the plot beyond their reach. There’s then a classic disguise-deceive-ambush rescue of a column of dwarven slaves: but lo, the DM reveals that (most of) the dwarves are not even that pleased about being rescued and that it’s a Campaign of Moral Pessimism! Oh shit! There’s no baked-in victory here!

Like, there really isn’t. It’s at this point that The Last Battle becomes a campaign all about endings. How do you end a campaign? How do you end a world? Lewis has some really pretty radical thoughts on the subject.

In the next couple of weeks I’m going to be ending a campaign I’ve had running for a year: the long arc of the campaign is finally coming good, the PCs have walked all the way along the rocky ridge to discover at the end that it was a dragon’s spine all along (not literally), the apocalypse is here, or threatening to be. But as things are planned, the PCs will avert it. Hopefully - for the requisite drama - one or two of them will die in the process, but only one or two of them. Threads will be tied up and long-planted seeds will fruit, but it will not be definitive. Doors will be left open.

Lewis closes his doors, extremely literally. The remnants of the world pass through a door - the dragons and great wurms eating up the land just before they leave - and then it is no more. As noted, a bunch of his older players show back up for the last session. There’s very little real play in the last session - a magnificent battle but one which everyone knows is there to be lost, and which they all lose as heroically as possible, and then the winding up, as Aslan-Lewis-GM spills all manner of secrets that he kept mysterious during the campaign proper. (Yes, the god-stuff gets near unignorable here, but ignore it with me.)

I sort of wish I had the guts to leave a setting and a story fully behind like this: because it allows the opening up of new, more adventurous adventures, like the ones Aslan previews to the now-ex-players of the Narnia campaign as he introduces them to the richer world he has built. I have a dozen new campaign ideas in my head, but I know me and my players both will likely be dragged back to the relatively easy, flexible mainstream fantasy setting we’re in now, and the richer, deeper, weirder worlds remain easy to imagine playing on when you don’t have to actually work out how to play in them.
Or perhaps it’s all just a metaphor for how exciting it sounds when the DM tells you that next time you’ll be using those awesome-looking new 4th edition rules...

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Make The Devils Work

not like this
The Lucky Folk, they are called, but euphemistically, for to speak of them is to invite ill luck. What is it, then, to be one of them? It is said the lucky folk are born of demons or of evil spirits, that they have one foot in hell: that, it is said, is why they cannot stand still. They travel, trading, herding, singing, thieving, fleeing: they shun gold and seek silver, and they court infamy by revering the moon. They are warm, and cruel, and secretive. They have sharp teeth and milky skin, hair dark or flaming red.
I instinctively dislike tieflings as PCs: in my current campaign I banned them. I have this in common with a lot of those who have traditionalist instincts, I think, though in my case it’s less traditionalism (I’m too new here for that) and more that they offend a sense of rarity. Ostensibly, they have the same issue as the dragonborn: there shouldn’t be demon babies running around cheapening the rich, deep resonance of demonhood. But I was thinking about my ongoing fiddling with a medieval Russian setting and about wanting to use a different diversity of races in it. So here is a go at rewriting and redeeming the spawn of the devil and getting to what it is doesn’t ring true about them. (I will not be rewriting or redeeming dragonborn ever, fuck dragonborn.)

Far over the sea, the sailors say, there is a land of sweltering heat, where massive, stone-built palaces rise on hills above the lethal forests below. It is a land of men, but the men there are slaves, vassals of the not-quite-men who raised the palaces and who still worship in the smoke-filled, echoing halls their own dark god, bull-headed and scorpion-tailed. They slaughter their slaves in their hundreds to the god, but among their own kind, with eyes a solid onyx black and bodies free entirely of hair, violence is a taboo punished by exile.

The thing, I think, is this: tieflings are sold to us as individuals, outliers who filter up through human society every once in a while at random, all sharp teeth and widow’s peaks, like Muggleborn wizards. They just show up among humans (and only among humans, apparently) at a certain rate within the population, like a genetic defect. This is backed up by the fact that the material is careful to say tieflings don’t (necessarily) have immediate infernal parentage but rather have some somewhere back in the bloodline: but it’s notable how many people do come away with the idea that they’re literal half-demons, especially since they’re right in there with half-elves and half-orcs. All of this makes them feel Special and Awesome – since after all being half-supernatural-embodiment-of-evil is more exciting than being half-grunting-thug-person - which is what makes them so aggravating to so many people who don't think a basic choice like PC race should confer that kind of exceptionalness. Which is to say, the tiefling as presented by most D&D material isn't really a race the way other D&D races are. It's a trait, it's a thing that sets you apart from the people around you, whereas being a dwarf or a halfling is all about why you are part of a bigger group, not apart from it.

'Son of a charcoal burner' – the worst insult the village children know. Few of them have ever even had the courage to approach the mobile camps, circling the nearby villages, stopping for a few weeks where the growth is good, raising their richly painted tents, building and packing the kiln, tending it with their sleepless eyes as the days and nights pass, their hands – though they reach in among the flames and embers often – pristine, long-fingered, sooty but free of scars and blemishes. Sometimes one of them walks away from the camp.

Once this is clear, it becomes very fixable: just put a race of tieflings in your setting. Boom. End of. They can and probably still should be a relatively unusual race, but as soon as you add a recognisable tiefling society to your game then your tiefling PC stops being annoying and starts relating to the world in the same interesting ways your other PCs do: it generates allegiances and quests and cultural knowledges and blindspots. You can stick with having them – as a race – be widely distrusted, if that floats your boat, but that also becomes more fertile and more generative of character and action when it's a wider prejudice. The bits in italics might give you some ideas.

The villages in the hills are little visited, but anyone who has been to a temple in the city has seen a villager, standing guard outside the great buildings, miles and days from their home, armour and weapons heavy and functional but the webbing of tattoos across the face and hands distinctive, elegant, almost legible. The children of the villages, everyone knows, worship no gods and have no souls: and thus it is that they may bear arms and spill blood in the houses of the gods.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Follies of Man

Having mentioned Witley Park and the mad things rich people used to make their landscape gardener and put-upon masons do, I was thinking more broadly about follies, the silly class of false features – pre-ruined pagan temples, artificial caves, monuments to nothing – that the wealthy enjoyed putting up around the place to add a little air of class and instant heritage. Here are d12 of them to use in your game, for populating the estate of the eccentric local landowner or the embarrassingly bourgeois guild merchant trying to look posh. Follies are good for making such landscapes more interesting and more gameable: the butler willing to sell his master's secrets can tell the party to meet him by the obelisk at midnight, or the ruined tower can provide a good place to stop and hold off the landowner's mastiff pack once it all goes south.

Sort of the point with follies is that they don't do anything, so mostly these should look half-plausibly arcane but not actually do anything. However, you might as well keep players on their toes and reward them for careful investigation: particularly if the estate has multiple follies, it's good to have one be secretly the real deal. So that stuff's in italics.

1 - A grotto. The grotto is the most upfront D&D of follies: a small fake cave (ideally tucked into a bank of earth behind a lake or something) complete with artfully carved stalactites around the cavemouth. Inside it goes for about 20ft of twisty, single-file passage, with a lightwell halfway down, and then just stops. Unless it doesn't. I'm sure you have a dungeon it can unexpectedly connect to if you lift the flagstone at the end of the passage.

2 - A neat little circular temple, with fancy columns at the entrance (one of them with the capital carefully knocked off for that historical look) and barely enough room for 6 people to stand inside: inside, opposite the doorway, is a vaguely ancient-looking block of carved stone with some candle stumps on it. The altar is fully operational and a hotline to Cyric (or whoever the local god of insanity is). If you keep an eye out you'll see the landowner's wife coming down here at midnight and lighting candles to stop the murderous voices in her head. She's only making it worse.

3 - Fake stone circle, with four trilithons standing (with the help of cement or mortar) and a fifth intentionally tumbled. A long, low stone in the centre has an altar-like feel, but the stonework on all of it is far too neat and fresh. Nevertheless, standing inside the circle and looking out through one of the trilithons shows the vista, and anybody peopling it, as viewed with True Seeing.

4 - A luxurious, tournament-style tent, the kind a king might take on a minor campaign, with rich blue fabric and a gold pattern stitched into it, the front half open and a curved bench inside. Except the canvas is actually plaster and the whole thing immovable. It does provide better shelter from rain than real canvas, though. Unfortunately it also has an unpleasant curse that attracts lightning during storms (or from spellcasting).

5 - An adorable little rustic cottage with a lopsided thatched roof hanging down and tiny, jewel-like windows looking out over the parkland: far too perfect to let an actual peasant live in it, of course, and mostly just a glorified garden shed full of tools (which make decent improvised weapons). Also the whole construction is about 2/3 normal human size: halflings love it here. Somewhere amid the rusting shears and rakes, findable with a bit of searching, is a wand of magic missiles, currently being used as the handle for a hoe: a cunning concealment until a local fence can sell it on.

6 - A modest, two-storey castle-style tower, with little battlements and arrow-slits and a flimsy arched door in the ground floor. Prettily decorated inside, for tea parties: the room's double height and the roof not accessible from the inside. If you can get to the roof, though, someone very paranoid has stashed 100 magical fire arrows and a longbow up there. It's a good spot for overseeing most of the estate.

7 - An adorably ruined tower, with a ground floor and then half of a neatly crumbled second one on top: built that way, of course. There's an archway on the ground floor but it's walled in and the tower is actually solid all the way through, with the arrow slits just cuts about a foot deep in the masonry. When moonlight hits the false door, however, it becomes very real. Somebody knows this, and they seem to be using the unreal chamber inside for storing an enormous amount of wealth.

8 - A whole mock-ruined castle: admittedly, a small one, with a couple of short towers and a curtain wall running between then and another spur of wall heading down a short slope before crumbling out. There's no interior, just the chain of neat-looking masonry on a small and equally artificial hill. But if you stand in the shell of the lefthand tower and make no sound at all, you can definitely hear the sounds of a savage and very real battle happening somewhere.

9 - A pre-dishevelled abbey, with the eerie “ruins” of a chapel of some kind, all high walls and long, empty windows, and around it much lower walls suggesting a wider floorplan and perfectly placed to take you out at the knees. But if you perform a service to Ilmater (or equivalent) at dawn you'll find yourselves with d20 temporary hitpoints each, lasting until sunset.

10 - A really foolishly extravagant fountain: mermaids, dolphins, a beardy man with a trident, the whole shebang, all horribly stained and ribboned with mould and weed. It completely dwarfs the fairly small round pond it's been placed in. The flowers of the water lilies that grow in the pond , when eaten, have a powerfully intoxicating effect, providing weird visions that create lethargy but boost Wisdom-based checks.

11 – A hermitage: a little rustic hut like 5, or possibly just an artificial cave with a door. Either way it's done up to look like an abode of scholars, with a silly conical roof or an inscription about wisdom over the door. It has an actual hermit too: that is, an eccentric old man with a long beard from the nearest village, whose adult children were only too happy to have him taken off their hands and given a meal a day by the local lord. He's pretty senile but knows what is expected of him and will do his best to talk in ominous ways. Except he actually is a wise and powerful sage, using the fake hermit thing as a cover. To hide from something? To observe the estate? To do some crucial research in peace?

12 – This place. Weird as hell. The local lord, or a predecessor, clearly has a mystical side. Silly little ceremonies where everything is in triplicate are held here every full moon, if the eccentric in question can find two people willing to play along. The construction is actually an extremely subtle and elaborate piece of architectural magic. If the party examines it carefully enough, they may realise that it triple-binds an enormously powerful demon by folding it into the angles of the triangles, storing it between dimensions. So why the ceremonies? Do the bonds need sustaining? Or is someone trying to free it?

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Lake at Witley Park

Witley Park is a real place, and Whitaker Wright was a real person: the facts of his life and home are deeply bizarre and worth reading about, but they'd also be worth gaming about, so here they are recast for fantasy and rewritten for gaming (with some of the facts chopped around and telescoped together, but still. Spoilers at those links for, uh, the rest of this post). This is the kind of mysterious location with legends attached you could put near any small town, or a little way outside a city, and drop hints about. It works best as a scandal from the generation before: everyone remembers it, or remembers someone who does, but now they’ll only whisper it, and nobody knows the truth of it.

In my father's time, a man appeared in the city – first at the house of the assayers, then at the miner's guild, and then, not long after, at court. He gave a meaningless name, Whitetaker, transparently false, and he had no pedigree, and was of no account – and yet, he was in the presence of the king, weeks after he had first come through the city gates. He carried with him a bar of silver-white metal – he said it was metal - with a strange sheen, like cloudy ice, and though it was as long and thick as a man's forearm, it was lighter than lamb's wool. He had the ingot assayed, and though it seemed impossible, the alchemists there said that it was a kind of silver, harder than forged iron but workable. He spoke of a mine, far from the city, wherein he had found it, and where he would be pleased to make more of it available to his majesty.

Before long he was a favourite of the court, and of the king especially: a charmer, a man who knew he was suspected of being a rogue and played the part with joy, but who worked assiduously on those who doubted him or looked down on his namelessness. Above all, he charmed the friendless king himself, and promised him that the mines would be at his highnesses disposal. In private, he whispered too of other powers the stones had. All that he needed, of course, was a little money, and a foothold in his majesty's society: a bride, perhaps, an eligible bride like the Witley heiress – the closeness of their names was pleasing, was it not, your majesty, fitting, a sign even, perhaps, just as my coming here was a sign that your age shall be a great one?

As soon as he became the tenant of Witley Park, he upheaved the ancient building and its grounds, levelling hills here and raising them there, scattering follies and throwing up new wings onto the cowering shell of the old house. He carved out a great bowl of earth where the dancing lawn had been and diverted a stream, creating a deep lake in the centre of the park. The balls and hunting parties were legendary, and the king was frequently in attendance.

But in time, the questions that had long been asked by the old guard and by the more level-headed alchemists became too loud to ignore. The questions of the mine's location, of its prospects, even of why there could be no map of the place, were asked more and more loudly. The king submitted to his counsellors, ceased to appear at Witley Park, and many followed suit. Two years after his arrival, his name was already being forgotten when the mansion, still unfinished, burned to the ground. Whitetaker, his wife, and dozens of servants vanished in the blaze, as did the silver. The estate passed to a distant branch who never deigned to visit the pile of ash, and the brief society fame and notoriety of Whitetaker was forgotten.

Witley Park is about 10 square miles of landscaped park, with a high (6') but mostly unmaintained stone wall running around the outside. The track from the nearest settlement, largely overgrown, ends in a gatehouse and iron gates – once painted a pearly silver colour, now mostly peeled off – but there is nobody to man it. Careful checks will nevertheless reveal that by crossing the wall or the gate, the party triggers a magical alarm somewhere. The grounds are mostly trackless and heavily obscured with undergrowth, and surprisingly rich in wolves, d6 of which will attack the party at some point. Careful searching might reveal a butchered sheep left out for them intentionally under a large ash tree. There are also, scattered around, a handful of statues and architectural ornaments: a small colonnade, a faked-up ruin of a temple, a large stone table, a stone pyramid the height of a man (this last one is on the far side of the grounds from the gatehouse).

In the rough centre of the grounds is the wreck of the house, on a rising ridge of ground: if approached from the gatehouse, there are the remains of a large circular driveway in front of it. Behind it, where the ridge slopes down again artificially sharply, is the lake. The house itself is a large mass of ruins: beneath the layer of topsoil and creeping plants that has grown over it, there are still several feet of compacted, fine ash, which might be recognisable to a knowledgeable PC as the characteristic ash of magical fire. The floorplan is still clear: two wings curling around the driveway from the main section, and projecting behind, looking over the lake, a third one, which has a great deal of ironwork and shards of glass. Poking around at night will attract the attention of d6 shadows, the unhappy remnants of the servants burned to cinders in the blaze. A diligent search will also turn up, sheltered by a corner of masonry in one wing, several fine pieces of jewellery worth maybe 500g
together (somewhat fire-blackened but cleanable) and elsewhere a few pieces of cutlery and so on.

The lake is elliptical and about 400ft long on the long side: in the centre of it, 200ft from each of the
'sharp ends' and 100ft from the closest point on the long ends, is a statue of a muscular, trident-bearing man with a fish-tail curling two artfully carved outcrop of rocks. It looks as if it was a fountain, probably. The lake has a gravel path running around it, now choked with weeds, and at one of the sharp ends of the ellipse a small, overdecorated wooden hut, now rotten and crumbling, containing (if the door is forced, which is easy) an equally rotten and unreliable rowing boat, with room for 4 but a 5% likeliness of sinking at an inconvenient moment, plus an additional 5% for each passenger.

Should this happen, or should anyone dive into the lake intentionally, they may discover something
quite interesting. Around the sides the lake is nearly 50ft deep, but in the middle something rises out of it: a glass dome, sitting on the bottom of the lake. This is the great secret of Witley Park. The dome is about 50ft wide and rises in a perfect hemisphere: at its top, a stone shaft ascends to – or descends from – the statue in the centre of the lake. Between the two rocky outcrops there is a heavy wooden door, with a rusted lock that could be picked or forced with difficulty. Attempting to do this will, however, awaken the statue, which is a gargoyle and will attempt to throw the PCs off the small artificial island (about 10ft wide, so it's a tight squeeze in the first place) and to hold them under the surface with its trident.

If the door is opened, it reveals a narrow ironwork staircase spiralling directly down into darkness. It hits the top of the dome, where there is a hatch that opens onto further ironwork stairs, hugging the inside of the dome and descending to the flagstone floor of the dome. The dome itself is extraordinary: hundreds of panes of glass through which faint, shifting green light filters. On one side, a tunnel disappears into darkness. Most of the floorspace beneath the dome is taken up with an elaborately equipped alchemical lab, most of which is quite clean and still functioning.
Whitetaker is still down here: after a fashion, he is still alive. If your party can deal with a lich, have him be a lich: otherwise he is a wight but with a certain amount of spellcasting (something like - bane, cure wounds, inflict wounds, hold person, silence, bestow curse - or whatever will offer the party a challenge. He's understandably reluctant to use powerful magical projectiles in his current spot). He has been down there for nearly half a century now, living an increasingly horrible half-life thanks to the metal, which he stumbled upon as a young man in some far-off place. It is not quite the philosopher's stone, but he sincerely believes and has done for fifty years, that he is within a few days' work of replicating and perfecting it. He sneaks out occasionally for further supplies: the tunnel that leads off from the dome comes out under the pyramid in the grounds, which has an artfully concealed exit. This he does only at night, believing that unfiltered sunlight is fatal to him and destructive to his experiments and that only in this chamber, shielded from physical and magical scrying and from atmospheric effects and interference by the weight of the water, can his work be carried out.

He is wrong about most of this and wrong that he can get any closer to immortality than he already has: and he is gradually using up his materials and has no way of replacing them. Nevertheless, the stone, now worn down to a pebble-sized nugget, does give a kind of suspension of life – including of most of its positive effects – if used as a reagent in the creation of a draught only he now comprehends. Perhaps the information can be beaten out of him or gleaned from his notes: perhaps the useless stone can just be sold for enormous sums.

He is insane, of course, and will try and kill the party: since they are up on a precarious stairway when they first enter, he will have a handy head start. Above all, he fears the theft of his research, and if he thinks the fight is not going his way, he knows which reagents on his benches will create an explosion powerful enough to cave in the glass and bring the lake in on everything. He will not hesitate to do it.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

stand by the play-world

The Silver Chair is one of the more off-kilter Narnia books and probably the consensus weakest: it has no Pevensies, no strong through-line and lots of futzing around. It’s weirdly moody, sort of children’s Gothic in places, and slightly nasty in other places. All of this makes it a less satisfying book than the others, but weird atmosphere and disconnected episodes can a great adventure make.

The party this time is down to three, with that strange triad dynamic three-person parties have, where there’s always someone the odd one out. In this instance it's definitely Puddleglum. We've got -
  • Eustace Scrubb, returning from his previous adventure, now some sort of fighter I guess
  • Jill Pole, a rogue coming into her own
  • Puddleglum, some weird homebrew race-class, overly heavily roleplayed

It's not the most inspiring party, and it takes a while for it to even get to the good adventuring, in which intervening time the terms of the campaign are clunkily set up with the announcement of Four Signposts, vague enough that the DM can jam them into whichever session they please to force the pace, and a somewhat better hook about a missing heir to the throne, along with the whole Marshwiggle thing which in many ways feels distinctly Ewok. Puddleglum is fun in his way but Lewis generally steers clear of non-human PCs for a reason, and Puddleglum even more than Reepicheep seems to dedicated to playing up a handful of characteristics until it becomes irritating.

But when the story finally starts going and they get to the good stuff, it's really good. After a little wilderness wandering and some ruin-crawling, wherein the party fails to take several DM-dropped hints, they comes to the avoidable but fun dungeon of Harfang, the castle of the giants, which is the template for many subsequent scale-based adventures, filled with tables 20ft off the ground and cooking pots with sheer sides. I think most people have done a version of this adventure at one time or another: it's irresistible. But it also tends towards goofiness, even cartoonishness – Harfang is gothicky and scary when you're a kid but not so much rereading now – which warns people off it. I've only ever run an adventure of the 'giant's castle, everything triple normal size' for a special silly birthday session, wherein players had to collect giant-style ingredients (cockatrice eggs, minotaur milk) to make a giant prince's birthday cake. It was excellent but it was only excusable as a dream sequence.

D&D's other, serious way of running civilized, society-having giants – to make them mythic and quasi-divine and put them in a kind of Valhalla (it's usually Nordic-themed) – actually also has a Harfang-y vibe, though that's because both Lewis and Gary were drawing on the Jotun of Norse myth. But this portentous, palaces-in-the-clouds approach is difficult to pull off because there's ultimately no getting away from the fact that even if they're all very solemn and Odin-like, their chairs are still DC15 to climb for your PCs, and their cutlery still makes for amusing two-handed weapons. What is to be done? Mostly, using giants as just very large orcs for mid-level parties, seems to be the answer. But throw your players in a cooking pot once in a while.

(Bonus information: 'Harfang' is an old term for a male snowy owl.)

The novel itself, though, pulls away pretty quickly from fun adventures in scale and gets a great deal darker – and here you get the the feeling that DM Lewis himself wasn't quite sure about Harfang's tone but that in Underland he can truly commit to the grimdark campaign he was aiming for. Underland offers the party a long caverncrawl towards their true objective, with the sense that the PCs are supposed to be ruthlessly cutting down the sad mooks known as Earthmen, who, like troglodytes and grimlocks and other lank-haired underground goblin stand-ins, are an uninspiring bunch. The party largely bypasses them through swift talking, which is a smart move, and comes to through further slightly overdone signposting to the Big Bad and her thrall, the object of their quest – where, once again, smooth talking and clever absorption of environmental clues helps them along. In the end they're given a massive DM nudge – the 'name of Aslan' – to get them to understand what needs doing. This bit itself is some bad DMing – the only way to destroy the titular chair seems to be to free the relevant NPC, whereas any decent party would sniff around for loopholes and hopefully be offered them. There is then some further smooth talking from Puddleglum, who defeats the Big Bad with a Christian filibuster nevertheless relevant to our purposes as well -

We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world.

At this point everything then switches gear again, for the optimistic or at least the wondrous, rather than the bleak: through the medium of a high-speed caverncrawl chase Lewis offers the party a shift from bleak Underdark-style Underland to the much more unique Bism, the Under-Underland of Narnia and home of some of Lewis' most vivid and memorable writing, where gemstones grow like ripe fruit and glow with internal light, and are harvested and eaten. The shift is another way in which The Silver Chair doesn't really work as a novel - especially since the party boringly decides to go down there, perhaps not realising that they can just load up on gems and crash the surface economy with them later. With this refusal to take the bait, the novel wanders off into heavy-handed, long-winded mysticism of the kind that does indeed doom it to be the weakest of the 7.

But Bism, brief as its appearance is, is interesting and a road not much taken by D&D, as well as by Lewis' party. Sure, the Underdark has theoretically wealthy and opulent drow cities and dragon lairs and the occasional subterranean treasure trove: but the vision of the underside of the world as more (and differently) fertile than the one aboveground where the party comes from is rare and strange and charming. Faerun, more than Narnia, is full of bands of people hurling themselves down holes in the ground for personal gain, and the RPG blogosphere is full of people worrying about what kind of society would lead to this happening when anything pseudo-medieval should, logically, be a land Merry England agriculture and gradual production of illuminated manuscripts. Bism is a plausible answer: make the underside of the world not just a place dotted with occasional motherlodes but inherently, overabundantly rich and strange. Dangerous too, obviously, but dangerous in its profusion, an underground jungle rather than a barren cavern.

Next time: it all gets very sad and serious indeed.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Pocket Deserts, Feral Elves

In the days of the living sea, the mountains that reached down to it from the north were like a branch dipping into a pool, refreshing itself: they were washed with soft breezes and slow, old growth. The elves were creatures of the warm plains below, where their elegant palaces unfolded across the shore in one pavilion and another. But in the bleached stretches of the summer, the wealthiest and mightiest of them would retreat to the green slopes, to sinuous summer palaces of pale wood curled across the hillsides.

When the sea began to retreat instead, when the bright ring of life around the sea began to crumble, some of them fled to the mountains and their unfamiliar forests, and fought over the highest and the most secret places. Some of them are still there, squatting in the ruins of their own luxury, trying to survive on alien slopes from which they could look down and see the azure shore creep back from the homes they had known. Many of them died, freezing in the winter or tumbling from thawing cliffs in spring or taken by the bears and wolves and shaggy-bearded tigers of the mountains, the southernmost outpost of the great savage beasts of the north.

Or, no longer the southernmost outpost: for as the sea gave way and the salt and sand unfurled under the sky, and as the elves fled upwards, the beasts came down. The great dark bears of the high crags cannot live in the sands for very long: but their forays there are rich in minerals and unattended carcasses. For this reason, in the northern reaches of the Dry Sea, there sometimes emerges from the heat haze, with the dark, indistinct hump of the mountains at its back, the lurching form of a great bear, or the fatal, firelight curl of a tiger’s body treading silently across the sand. The parched bed of the dry sea is very flat. There is no place to hide yourself.

The Chara sands are a real (if hideously implausible) place, a pocket desert in Siberia: also real are the forests on the southern coast of the Caspian sea. This is a little like those places, but with more post-decadent elves trying to rediscover the connection to the natural world that their self-myth claims they've always had. It's not working very well for most of them. Also, players don't expect bear attacks in deserts.

Monday, 5 September 2016

as great an adventure as I have ever heard of

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my favourite Narnia book most of the time. Certainly it is the most fun: from a D&D perspective, it is the campaign where, having done an ill-advised political thing previously, the DM goes to the other extreme for a travelling campaign with a thin premise and a series of disconnected but enjoyable sessions. Its other value, for our purposes, is that it takes a lengthy look at how to deal with a new player who isn’t really enjoying themselves.

The party this time has 5 players (if you have a 6th person maybe you could stat up Lord Drinian, knock yourself out) - 

  • Caspian, now King and the chief figure in the party
  • Edmund, stripped of traitorishness now and very vanilla, sadly
  • Lucy, now taking on a role as party healer
  • Reepicheep - mousefolk, crazy high dex and cha but no staying power
  • Eustace Scrubb (‘There was once a boy named Eustace Scrubb, and he almost deserved it’)

Class is a problem here: no less than 3 of these PCs (Caspian, Edmund, Reepicheep) raise the problem of how to represent traditional fantasy knights with player classes. Are they fighters or paladins? For variety’s sake Caspian can be a paladin, Edmund a fighter and Reepicheep a bard (college of valour, duh - he needs to be a duellist, basically) but there are many configurations that would work.

Dawn Treader has, first and most obviously, an enormous amount to teach us on the subject of ships. To this day I know the difference between port and starboard only thanks to that book: a few weeks ago I ran an ‘explore the sunken pirate ship’ adventure for the birthday of one of my players and realised halfway through designing the ship that I was just subconsciously redrawing Pauline Baines’ beautiful diagram of the Dawn Treader. That drawing is basically the platonic ideal of a ship, and you could run an entire adventure with it very happily. I’ve never really run any extended ship-based combat or travel - though I’m aware it’s something people are constantly systematising and resystematising and squabbling about - but I would think that if you and your players have a decent knowledge of Dawn Treader you can’t really go very far wrong.

this is literally everything you ever need to know about boats

After the introductory stuff that gets the party together and teaches us how boats work, and the establishment of the flimsy ‘find the 7 lords’ premise which just functions as an instruction to sail around and land on stuff, Dawn Treader’s first session is an extremely classic, extremely great first-session ‘the party is captured by slavers!’ adventure, in which the players learn a lot about the society of the islands they have landed on by asking clever questions based on the small amount of information the DM has given them, and then effect a brilliant, largely bluffed storming of the slaver stronghold that uses tactical thinking to negate the numerical advantage of the NPCs. This is good adventuring and Caspian is revealed to be an impressive planner and taker of deception and persuasion checks.

It’s also abundantly clear during this session, though, that Eustace is not enjoying himself. He has a basic inability to get into the spirit of things - possibly he’s just sort of a dick generally, possibly he thinks he doesn’t like fantasy. Certainly he is uncomfortable saying he does. Lewis tells us too that he simply hasn’t read enough, either, and can’t draw on the stock of tropes many players can;

‘Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.’

To be fair to him, the rest of the party have played before, and he is in the unfortunate position of being the new kid on the block. Most of us have been Eustace. All of us have had a Eustace in the party. What the DM does with a Eustace is crucial: if the Eustace continues to be a Eustace and spoil things for himself and others, it is not the Eustace’s fault, it is the DM’s.

DM Lewis (‘Jack’, even though he was named Clive: he had some issues, did Lewis) deals with the problem front and centre in the next session by building an adventure entirely around Eustace. This is risky - if Eustace didn't play along then the whole thing would collapse, but bringing it to a crisis like this is still probably sensible, as it forces the issue: if it hadn’t worked it would have been quite easy to have a word with Eustace re: him not really enjoying it, and mutually agree to have him fall overboard at some point before the next session. But Eustace does enjoy it: he is gently guided by the DM into having an adventure by himself for a bit wherein he is transformed into a dragon (exciting! Eustace is immediately like 100x more powerful than everybody else!) and then into seeing why actually he doesn’t really want to be a dragon, he wants to be his character. Meanwhile he is also being spoonfed important plot information re: one of the missing seven lords, which he can then feed back to the rest of the party and feel important about. Then he is shown the power of proper party teamwork as he is undragoned, but only after he has also performed several useful tasks for the party and established his value: and then (not to get too deep into the allegories here, but) he submits to the arbitrary but benevolent rule of the DM, having seen its wisdom. This, friends, is a masterclass in dealing with awkward players, and with it dealt with the islandcrawling can commence.

The pure islandcrawling, the second half of the novel, is packed with good stuff, much of it good enough and flexible enough that you could pluck it off its islands and land it almost anywhere in a campaign. Several of these sessions foreground one or another player,
perhaps as compensation for the early foregrounding of Caspian and then of Eustace. Lucy - kind of always the DM’s favourite, to be honest - gets her day in the sun with the excellent Dufflepods session, which uses invisible NPCs to great effect and is both funny and deeply spooky, and does a clever job of creating fear in the party without really having a genuine villain. There’s a part where Lucy is creeping down the corridor of Coriakin’s house, heading for the spellbook, and she catches sight of her face in a strange, bearded mirror. Lewis says something beautiful about his not being a magician and therefore not knowing what the mirror is for, and it’s what every DM always wants to say when a player starts grilling them about a random background detail. Lucy’s eventual encounter with the spellbook is good too - the detail about it being possible to turn the pages forward but not back is maybe the first instance of that trope, and the offer of individual power at the price of achieving a party objective is always a fun thing to throw at a party once their dynamic has become a bit too stable. There is too here the not-very-gameable but always-quotable last impression of that spellbook, when its contents fade from Lucy’s memory like a dream:

‘And she never could remember; and ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician's Book.’

There are further island excitements: Deathwater Isle, where the water turns everything to gold, is not exploited as much as you might think by the party (mine would dip almost
everything they could find in it and then offload the on some island merchant, spectacularly crashing the economy). Then it gets reeeeal mystical towards the end, and frankly this bit is not very gameable: but it is preceded by a seminar on adventuring philosophy itself, in the incident of the Dark Island. The Dark Island is a giant mass of sea-floating darkness in which nightmares become flesh: along with Charn and Tash, it’s one of the moments Lewis lets himself get gnarly. As a child, the fragments of horror the crew experience on it - the scissors, the gongs - used to give me real nightmares. But more relevant to our purposes, when it appears on the horizon, the party has a full on dispute about the point of adventuring. Everyone is all ‘fuck going there,’ and then Reepicheep pipes up:

‘But what manner of use would it be ploughing through that darkness?' asked Drinian.

‘Use?' replied Reepicheep. 'Use, Captain? If you mean by filling our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be no use at all. So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventures. And here is as great an adventure as I have ever heard of, and here, if we turn back, no little impeachment of all our honours.’

Don’t try and tell me you have never had this conversation round the table. Don’t be a Drinian. Be a Reepicheep.