Monday, 31 October 2016

A Stranger in the Mountains of Heaven

Nicholas Roerich (see also my header image)

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

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

James Gurney

Thursday, 27 October 2016

the village and the village

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


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


Planwise, they look something like this:


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


Planwise, a typical historic one looked something like this:



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

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

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

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

Monday, 24 October 2016

A raven speaks to heaven


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

Omen
Summary of the interpretation
Prognostication
1-1-1
A white-spotted falcon perches in a sandalwood tree.
none
1-1-2
A woman drops her mirror in a lake.
distressing and very bad
1-1-3
A single meadowsweet shrub multiplies to become many thousand plants.
good
1-1-4
A man encounters a god who wishes him plentiful livestock and long life.
good
1-2-1
The khan went hunting and caught a roe buck.
good
1-2-2
A bear and a boar fight together, and are both injured.
bad
1-2-3
A golden-headed snake.
bad
1-3-1
A slave speaks to his master; a raven speaks to heaven.
good
1-3-2
A fawn is without grass and water.
bad
1-3-3
A camel is stuck in a marsh, and is eaten by a fox.
bad
1-3-4
An old ox is bitten by ants.
bad
1-4-1
Chicks, fawns and children lost in the fog are found safe after three years.
good
1-4-2
A hawk pounces on a rabbit, but it injures its claws and the rabbit escapes.
bad
1-4-3
A roan horse and a bay horse are made to run until they are exhausted.
bad
1-4-4
A tiger returns to its den after finding some prey.
good
2-1-1
khan rules a stable country, and has many good men at his court.
good
2-1-2
A man arrives with good news.
good
2-1-3
yargun (?) deer climbs the mountains during the summer.
good
2-1-4
A fat horse is stolen.
bad
2-2-1
A girl's lover has died, and the water in her pail has frozen.
painful to start with, and good later
2-2-2
The Son of Heaven sits on a golden throne.
good
2-2-3
A white male camel.
good
2-2-4
A roan horse is fettered and cannot move.
bad
2-3-1
A stallion summers beneath the nut trees, and winters beneath the trees where the birds roost.
good
2-3-2
It rains and the grass grows.
good
2-3-3
A horse that is lost in the desert finds grass to eat and water to drink.
good
2-3-4
A raven is tied to a tree.
none
2-4-1
A tent is in good condition.
very good
2-4-2
chieftain sees a white mare, a white camel and the third princess giving birth.
very good
2-4-3
A leopard yawns in the reeds.
none
2-4-4
A khan returns victorious from battle.
good
3-1-2
When a man is depressed and the sky is cloudy the sun comes out.
good
3-1-3
A blind foal tries to suckle at a stallion.
bad
3-1-3
A yoke of oxen harnessed to a plough cannot move.
bad
3-1-4
Heaven decrees that a slave girl becomes a queen.
good
3-2-1
A big house burns down.
bad
3-2-2
A son who argued with his parents runs away and later comes back home.
good
3-2-3
Something to do with not making a "year stink" (?) or a "month go bad" (?).
good
3-2-4
A white-spotted cow gives birth to a white-spotted male calf.
good
3-3-1
An old hoopoe sings at the new year.
none
3-3-2
A fat horse has a hard mouth that will not heal.
bad
3-3-3
An eagle with golden wings catches and eats whatever it wants.
good
3-3-4
A falcon hunting water birds encounters an eagle.
bad
3-4-1
A crane lands but is caught in a snare.
bad
3-4-1
A grey falcon with a white neck sits on a rock, and summers in a poplar tree.
very good
3-4-1
A tiger encounters a wild goat, but the goat escapes down a cliff.
good
3-4-2
An abandoned old woman stays alive by licking a greasy spoon.
none
3-4-3
A hunter falls over.
bad
3-4-4
The old god of the road who mends things brings order to the country.
none
4-1-1
A man has no titles and a bad reputation.
very bad
4-1-2
A man goes to war, and makes a name for himself.
very good
4-1-3
A white horse.
good
4-1-4
A woman who has left her cups and bowls behind returns and finds them where she left them.
good
4-2-1
The sun rises and shines on the world.
good
4-2-2
A sheep encounters a wolf but remains safe.
good
4-2-3
A poor man's son returns home after earning some money.
good
4-2-4
Some felt falls into the water.
bad
4-3-1
A stag with nine-pronged antlers bellows.
good
4-3-2
A butcher gains ninety sheep.
good
4-3-3
An eagle summers on a green rock, and winters on a red rock.
none
4-3-4
A man returning from war encounters a swan who leads him home.
good
4-4-1
A stout-hearted young man shoots an arrow that splits a rock.
good
4-4-2
A boy finds some eagle droppings.
good
4-4-3
Messengers on a yellow horse and a dark brown horse bring good news.
very good
4-4-4
The god of the road riding on a dappled horse bestows his favour on two travellers.
good

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

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

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

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


Thursday, 20 October 2016

Ministers of grace defend us


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you do better than this lot?

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Angels of Oghma

The angels of Oghma are born not among the living but among those who have lived: sometimes, in a place where knowledge is gathered and stored and where it waits unused and unknown there will aggregate itself a narrow scroll, no thicker across than the wrist of a maiden and seeming to recurve upon itself always such that though the ends cannot be seen to meet, nor can it be seen to end. From the side, it seems, there is no scroll to see at all, and as it turns and drifts in the air like the fine hair of the drowned it disappears and reappears in different arhythms for each of its observers. Afterwards, no one can recall seeing any writing on it, but everyone knows something they did not know before - and no two who see the same angel seem to know the same novel thing after. 


Those who touch the scroll learn nothing, and unlearn all that is dearest to them.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Angels of Ilmater

Jacqueline Nicholls
The angels of Ilmater are born from the bodies of martyrs: when the mortal body breaks and crumples, a skein of blood-red thread ravels from the point where their heart was while it still beat, unspooling into the shadow-shape of their body, an unbroken thread curling and swaying constantly, like a snake waiting to strike. It is faceless, voiceless, soundless, and impossibly strong. Visible only from the corner of the eye, in glints and dazzles like golden dust-motes caught in an evening light-shaft, sprouting from its back, are not wings but two immense hands, wrists rising from the strange manikin's shoulderblades, fingers flexing and spreading. It is remorseless, heedless, senseless, and unknowably appalled.


Hoping to use one of these tomorrow, so just putting this here for now. As you will surely recall, two hands bound with red thread is Ilmater's symbol (post-rebrand).

Monday, 10 October 2016

Kidnap Me From The Church On Time


I just got back from a wedding in rural Bavaria, which was as rich in lederhosen, amazing beer and odd traditions as you could possibly want. At some point during the 7th or 8th speech full of involved German jokes that I didn't fully get my mind wandered to the uses of weddings, especially in small, rural places like where you might find yourself adventuring.

The sleepy town with three moderately interesting NPCS, two unusual buildings and one source of conflict that your PCs go stumbling into on a monthly basis – get one here! - doesn't have to be in social stasis all the time. Wandering into town hours before the big wedding that everyone is going to be attending is an immediate way to make a town an active scene rather than just a painted backdrop, in much the same way as a festival or a fair but with more chance to put a couple of NPCs centre-stage: and of course the wedding will inevitably have some charming local customs/unforseen hitches/both that you can use as adventure hooks. Here are d10 of them -

1 – It's a small village and literally everyone is invited to Hrothgar and Haelwin's wedding: but it's also a remote village and there are wolves and worse about. Someone had better patrol the outskirts of the village from the beginning of the service until sunrise when the revelling finally stops.

2 – It's a small village and literally everyone is invited to Vlodimir and Ruslana's wedding. This close to the imperial capital there's nothing by way of serious external threats, but the whole village in one feasting hall with lots of booze is a recipe for reopening old wounds and settling old scores. Someone had better enforce the 'no weapons at the wedding' rule and make sure nothing gets too ugly.

3 – Everyone seems to be excited about the wedding except for Smoke Tiger herself, who clearly cannot stand the idea of marrying Jade Sunset. She wonders if group of armed strangers who just showed up in town could be paid off to 'abduct' her and dump her somewhere a few towns away until it all blows over? The Sunsets won't be happy, mind you.

4 – Per longstanding tradition the bride is to be 'kidnapped' by her friends and family immediately after the wedding and hidden somewhere while the groom searches the village. It's all in fun and the bride usually ends up being 'hidden' in a tavern – but Orianna doesn't have roots in the village (her betrothed, Rodrego, is the local) and needs some help. Maybe the strangers with the horses and the showy weaponry could help out with some performative kidnapping? (This is a real thing, btw, in Bavaria among other places. Obviously it has its roots in grim nonconsensual bride-theft, but that shit doesn't belong in your game. Wedding adventures are light-hearted.)

5 – Ysmail's family is tiny, whereas Rushnura's is huge, so there'll be dozens of her siblings and cousins helping to kidnap and conceal her and create plausible distractions. Ysmail would love it if he had some canny scouts willing to help him ride around town, check in all the haylofts, and fight his way to his bride should her 'defenders' get too enthusiastic. Just as long as nobody really gets hurt...

6 – A wedding feast without entertainment? Impossible! But old Birdhands the bard is dead and his apprentice Athra Whitepeak is the one getting married – to lucky old Slytha who lives near the mill – so someone else is going to need to do the honours. Music, singing, storytelling, tumbling, maybe a little comic skit or two: who could possibly help out? Best if nobody mentions that time they broke the travelling harpist's hands for not knowing any of the best tunes. (This one is all the better if the party doesn't have a bard.)

7 – Half the hamlet still doesn't believe Hua will actually marry Lao. The date is set, the feast is cooking and the families are keen, but Lao's such a hopeless dweeb. Maybe there are some tough-looking types around who could be persuaded to start and then lose a fight with him outside Hua's house? What could possibly go wrong?

8 – If Gerhard and Gunther are to wed, there must be a feast reflecting their families' wealth and status! Nothing short of the Great White Boar that still haunts the hill north-west of the village will do as the main dish: not least because Gerhard's father still has tusk-shards from the old bastard in his leg. But somehow nobody wants to go out and kill it...

9 – Hedwig and Bridget's wedding ceremony can't start until the traditions have been observed: and foremost among those traditions is the Traveller's Welcome, for what's a feast without providing hospitality to some gang of bedraggled wanderers? Hopefully they brought a nice enough gift, and hopefully they remember all the correct formulae for toasting the happy couple, their parents, their grandparents, their namesakes, their clans, their patron gods...

Here in this caption to this Roman wedding I will place
my unobtrusive agreement that yes, weddings are in
many ways the worst and to be shunned. But still.
10 – Ashoka and Tishyaraksha are desperate  to marry, despite their families' opposition – they've foregone any chance of a wedding feast, broken off contact with most of their relatives, even found a half-mad priestess willing to look the other way and perform the rites. All they need now is two witnesses each: but nobody in town is willing to do it, and some of their relatives might try and get in the way of anybody else who wanted to give it a try...


That's yer lot. Also, though, weddings that go wrong? Weddings where one half of the happy couple maybe doesn't reach the end of the evening alive? Weddings where the suddenly bereaved survivor needs to leave town and their exciting new feud very very quickly? Great source of new PCs.


Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Soane's Museum





Udan-Adan – a blog I commend to you in all respects - recently did an excellent and hilarious post on Romantic artists as DMs, which features the incredible Joseph Gandy image on the left. That picture is in fact of a real place which looks substantially the same now as it did when Gandy painted it – it's the house-museum of the architect and collector Sir John Soane, and you can visit it in London (for free!) should you wish to visit a heavily modified, labyrinthine 18th century house stuffed with weird recovered art treasures.

Which is to say: John Soane's house is totally a dungeon, you guys. So I mapped and filled it. This version of it is based on the real house and doesn't change or falsify any of its details (like, seriously, look it all up after - I have stuffed this post with imaes but you can never get enough of this place), but it tries to be setting-agnostic. You could use this as a dungeon in a game set in some actual version of London, but you could also use it in any RPGable city of your creation that features antiquaries and eccentrics, which is any RPGable city at all: the way it’s presented here is with real-world names and so forth but they can be run through any appropriate fantastic filter. Soane - or whatever you want to call him - can be any prominent visionary weirdo of the city. The Greek and Roman and Egyptian (and Indian and Incan and Chinese and so on) artefacts of Soane's collection can be mapped onto any ancient cultures your setting has (and are a handy way of introducing those cultures to your players, so that months later you can say 'this tomb is in the style of that fucked-up mask you picked up in Soane's house right before the night watchmen finally broke down the door').

In fact Soane's house is a particularly good thing to drop into a game if you have a setting with detailed forerunner cultures, because it's a microcosm of a moment in Western history when obsession with supposed forerunner cultures – Greece and Rome, largely – was at its height. Soane embodied that obsession and united, in his interests and pursuits, classicism and romanticism, which we often think of as opposites but which to Soane and his circle were facets of the same, deeply D&D thing: an
obsession with the grandeur and tragedy of ancient civilizations, and a constant need to delve back into them. Soane's house – the real one – is a berserk hodgepodge of objects from those cultures and architectural designs imitating and interpreting and exaggerating them in meticulous and bizarre ways.

Which is to say, it's like stepping inside a DM's notebook. But enough theory, here's the practice.
Soane’s house is a 5-storey townhouse set somewhere in an upscale but quiet part of the city. Its neighbouring houses are expensive but discreet, presenting uniform outsides - Soane’s house was like this too, once, before he got his hands on it (and on parts of the neighbouring two houses: Soane has purchased chunks of the insides of these houses over the years from his neighbours, hence the irregular internal shapes) and began his endless rebuilding. The upper stories are nevertheless still a relatively conventional townhouse (though full of weird objects), but the back parts of the ground floor and the basement (‘the museum’) are anything but.
Soane lives in the house with his wife (Eliza), his two sons (George and John) and three
The man himself
servants: a housekeeper (Mrs Higgins), a maid (Lucy), and a bootboy (Tommy). Soane himself is a noted eccentric about town and collector of odd objects, widely regarded as good fun and an excellent party host (and relied upon by a whole constellation of antiquities dealers, legitimate and otherwise, for their livelihoods) but often thought to have squandered his chance at a proper architectural career. Most of his commissions nowadays are small works - monuments and tombs - or plans and drawings that never come to anything. Soane’s sons, aged 17 and 15, are an embarrassment to him: he had hoped that they would train as serious architects and create a legacy for him but they have turned out to be dissolute wastrels, forever being ejected from one or another tavern. There is a decent chance of them not being in the house most of the time, and a fairly good one that the party will run across one or both of them if they know where the smart set likes to party: they might even be open to the suggestion that the afterparty happen at their dad’s place. Soane’s wife is a faithful companion and society hostess, if occasionally driven to distraction by her husband’s behaviour. She has agreed a division with him whereby she maintains the upstairs house but he looks after the basement and his collection there. She is helped around the house by Mrs Higgins, who has been with the family forever and whose knees aren’t what they used to be, and by Tommy, who reckons he must be around 12 years old. Lucy is a lady’s maid but is also the only servant allowed in the cellars: Soane says she is the only one careful enough when dusting the antiquities.

The party might have any number of reasons for wanting to get into Soane’s place. It is
filled 
with valuable antiquities: a handful of really priceless pieces and a large number of less exceptional but still desirable ones. The party may simply hear of Soane’s collection on the grapevine - along with the rumour that some of the collection is magical, where appropriate - or if they move in the right circles they may be invited to a party there. Most likely, though, they will be specifically approached by a rival collector or a dealer, perhaps one of those who sells to Soane but who has decided they want some of their inventory back, with a generous offer and the promise that Soane’s house is not well guarded and that the payment on the table is as nothing compared to the value of anything else the party might care to pick up in the house. This is and is not true.

Antiquities and artifacts of numerous kinds are scattered throughout the house, but particularly in the back section of the ground floor and the basement (‘the museum’), where it is literally impossible to reach out an arm without knocking over a bust of some dead notable. There is an enormous assortment of objects large and small, all of them of potential interest to collectors. Their value is generated like so (this sounds fiddly


but trust me it is fun as fuck once you get going) - tell whichever PC is investigating or pocketing an object what it is (mask/chair/statuette) and its cultural origin (Greece/Maztica/Yoon-Suin): they then (starting immediately) have a number of seconds equal to their Intelligence to describe it. At the end of this roll d100 and multiply by the number of adjectives the PC used that made sense and that haven’t yet been used to describe any other object in the house (keep a list). Give bonuses for particularly clever descriptions and penalties for shit ones. A lot of Soane’s objects are also replicas or fakes: plaster casts and the like. Some of these he knows about and has anyway, some he doesn’t. When an object is valued, roll a d8 secretly - on a 1 it’s not authentic and the party doesn’t spot this, on an 8 it’s not authentic and the party does. An inauthentic object is worth 10% of its apparent value (but of course the party could try and sell it on as authentic). There’s also the risk, during resale, that something will be noticed as coming from Soane’s collection: the PCs must roll over the item’s value on a d1000 to avoid this (though the buyer may not care). Obviously you’ll also need to impose sensible limits on what the party can carry.

Or you can have everything be worth d400 gp each. Fuck you.

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The house itself breaks down into two parts. The ‘home’ - the upper floors and the large front rooms of the ground floor and basement - is full of weird embellishments and odd corners but they are at least grafted onto the skeleton of a recognisable house. Here (and above) is the whole building, with the street facade on the left: the oblong at the front of the ground and basement floors is a sunken area. Everything on the diagram on floors 2 and 3, and everything on floors -1, 0 and 1 south and west of the stairs (the oval thing on the northern side - call north the top of the image), is the home. From the top:

3 is the servants’ quarters, right at the top of the house: there’s a back bedroom where the maid and bootboy sleep and a small front boxroom where the housekeeper sleeps, and a
common room with a large square table where they dine together and do various bits of sewing, mending etc. The tiny room-cupboard just west of the stairs is a toilet. Everything on this floor is simple and Spartan: there’s one rather neglected curio in the niche at the top of the stairs but otherwise this part of the house is free of goodies. Each of the servants has a few sets of clothes and a strongbox with a fairly easily forced lock: Mrs Higgins’ is full of money she has been saving, Tommy the bootboy’s has a nice knife he was given by his mother when he left home and quite a lot of extremely bad love poetry about Lucy, and Lucy’s has a locket in the shape of a scarab beetle that seems like it must have been stolen from Soane’s collection and a diary with most of the pages torn out. In the dining room is a fair amount of domestic bric-a-brac and one of the most well-provisioned sewing boxes on the planet. The odd slot reaching east from the eastern wall of the common room has a curtain separating it from the rest of the room and functions as a cupboard and an excellent hiding place (it’s actually a vestige of an architectural experiment Soane never pursued further).

Below, on 2, are the family bedrooms. The bedroom at the back is the boys’ (on the diagram it looks like a double bed but it has two singles) and the larger one at the front is Soane’s: the connected room north of it is a combination closet and private study for Mrs Soane, who
writes letters and reads in there. Her personal correspondence is not especially interesting but there’s a fair amount of jewellery in the ornate armoire. Soane does all his work downstairs so this room really only contains several sets of frayed clothes. The boys’ bedroom has various adventure novels and lots of dandyish clothing: wedged into a crack in the floor under George’s bed is a bundle of unpaid tavern bills and gambling debts coming to several hundred gp all told. The room in the south-east corner is a bathroom, which is to say it has a heatable closet for water, a large tin bath, several enamel basins and two cupboards full of towels and linens, as well as a smaller cabinet containing various patent medicines (most of them fairly fraudulent). One of them, with a nasty, tarry smell, is called Dr Carter’s Bitumen Paste. This room has no toilet, though: as with the floor above, that’s in the cupboard just west of the stairs. All of these rooms (but not the toilet), and the corridor connecting them, have 2d4 antiquities in them: Soane’s bedroom has 2d8. The strange little room east of the stairs is one of three on successive floors, created by Soane who had bought the space and didn’t want to waste it. This one has a couple of extremely dramatic, overdone paintings in it: the whole staircase is hung with paintings and this is a rot of overflow space for them.

The 1st floor is as large as the one above it: the grey space on the plan is all glazing (see the entry on the museum) and the smaller white space immediately east of the room with the X-
patterned carpet is a light shaft going all the way to the basement. Here again there is a toilet in the small room west of the stairs: the odd room east of the stairs is in this instance a weird kind of shrine to Shakespeare (or relevant equivalent): it has a marble bust of him and is hung with paintings depicting scenes from his plays. The bust sits on a cabinet containing a valuable early edition of his works. Soane reveres Shakespeare (obviously). The two larger rooms that make up the bulk of this floor - the one with the X carpet and the front room - flow into each other, with the front room also having a kind of roofed-in colonnade on the front (added on by Soane, of course). These are entertaining rooms: in the back room there is a long table with 12 chairs and a large armoire containing large amounts of silverware and crockery (and d4 antiquities): the front room is a more general reception room, with chairs and side-tables around the edges and most of the floor clear. Each of these rooms contains 2d8 antiquities, mostly smaller ones on shelves but at least one chair of exotic origin and one full-size statue in a corner.

In the ‘home’ section of the ground floor, there are again two interconnected rooms along with a hallway leading from the front door to the stairs. The hall is lined with paintings and 2d6 antiquities: the small room off the stairs to their east has, this time, a hat- and coat-stand in it, with numerous umbrellas, travelling cloaks and the like also hanging in it. There
are also two quite blunt swords - basically theatrical props - in the umbrella basket. The two large linked rooms on this floor are referred to collectively as the library: they are lined with locked glass-fronted cabinets containing a large number of books (probably a couple of hundred all told) on various architectural and antiquarian subjects. Most of the books have some second-hand value: one or two are near-priceless. They have no very logical organisation, though Soane can find any of them amazingly quickly: he is the only person with keys to the cabinets. The library, taken as a single room, has 3d10 antiquities. The mid-size room with multiple entrances and exits immediately east of the stairs is a sort of intermediate room between the home and the museum - it is known as the breakfast room and has a large round table in the centre around which breakfast is eaten and on which the day’s newspaper can usually be found. This room is the scene of normal family life but like the museum it links to it has elaborate, multi-faceted lightwells and glazed roof sections, and has numerous antiquities.

Finally for the ‘home’ is the front part of the basement, accessible from the area steps through a locked and (at night) bolted door down there as well as from the main stairs (and ultimately from the museum basement as well). These interconnected rooms south and west of the stairs are the kitchen: the main room has a huge central kitchen table and heavy wooden sideboards, and two large cast iron stoves, and is filled with pots and pans and knives and utensils and so forth. The smaller rooms are various kinds of pantries and storecupboards: the shaded area immediately west of the stairs is an ingeniously modified pantry designed by Soane to retain a very low temperature, and contains a large block of ice and some chilled food: the space to the west of this room, on the north side of the kitchen, is the boot room, where Tommy is usually to be found shining and mending when he is not running errands.The largish room east of the main kitchen room, on the south side of the house, is a further storeroom but largely for plates, cutlery, spare trays and folding tables etc rather than food. These kitchen areas do not contain any antiquities.

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As for the museum, well, here we switch to this map, which I think is actually an incredibly early central heating diagram of the house? Incorporate that if you so wish, pipes full of hot water that can be punctured in people’s faces at crucial moments are great. Does this map confuse you? Good. Partly this is because things have shifted 90 degrees (our former north is
now to the left - look at the stairs for guidance). But generally it is extremely hard to properly convey the complexity and narrowness of the space in the weirder parts of the house. The chief thing to understand is that the the ‘museum’ section is a network of passages and galleries and arcades, none of which are wide enough to allow two people to walk abreast: see these various images. Proper use of this limitation and of the various balconies, shafts and lightwells between the ground floor and the basement is the basis of all museum strategy: it is an arena for clever, close-quarters sneaking and fighting. The only exceptions to this are the named rooms - the monks’ room and the picture room - and even these are of such a size that if you were to spread your arms you’d hit at least one wall, or more likely one priceless antique, since this is where most of them are.

In the museum, antiquities are not counted - they are everywhere. Every wall is hung with them, stacked from ceiling to floor; all the little internal balconies that look down from the ground floor to the basement have artefacts sat on their railings; every tiny alcove has
something in it and something else balanced on top of that something. The limits now are more about grabbing the most and the most valuable ones and getting away with it (on which more below).

We’ve mentioned the breakfast room already - to the south of it (i.e. the left on our new map, keep up) is a squarish space that’s not an internal room but rather a void - this goes all the way down to the basement floor, where it forms a sunken outdoor courtyard, though not one you could stroll around in as it is crowded with obelisks and columns and arch keystones (these count as antiquities if anyone can be bothered to move them). This is the space that was noted above on level 1 behind (ie east of) the dining room. If you look again at that depiction of level 1 you’ll see all the greyed-out material as well, covering the area of the museum - this is all the ornate, multi-level roof glazing (see pictures). This whole area, where other houses might have gardens, is a baffling expanse of lightwells, skylights (many of them with coloured glass - see pictures), ornamental glass domes and columns and whathaveyou: you will definitely fall through somewhere if you try running across this roof. It ensures that the museum, despite being a two-level warren of passages, is surprisingly well-lit by day, and even at night moonlight filters in. The museum is extremely eerie at night.

On the ground floor, on the other side of the lightwell from the breakfast room, is the first of the narrow, single-file passages into the museum, running straight from the library (marked with a couple of h’s on the map). It is lined with antiques and also with custom-made cupboards and, at one point, an ingeniously installed washbasin. From here, or from the breakfast room, you enter the long, north-south running gallery (marked as such on the map), which is divided by the marked columns and by excessive numbers of statues and display boards into further single passages. To the north, it leads to the square-with-a-circle-inside-it which is directly above the ‘Belzoni chamber’ of the basement. This square is a balcony-gallery looking down into that chamber, with a glass dome above it: the passages around its four sides are all single-file as well. Beyond it, to the north, is a large statue of Apollo set in a half-rotunda, essentially another excruciatingly narrow passage that leads round behind it (and, as with everything else, is festooned with antiques).

At the south end of the museum’s ground floor is the picture room, marked as such on the
Soane's painting of the imagined ruins of his imaginary
Bank of England.
map: here there is more space, and no antiquities, but instead a room hung with large pictures, all of them speculative architectural designs, buildings Soane hopes or has hoped to build on large canvases. They’re not blueprints; they’re full-on oil paintings of these buildings in their imagined prime. There are also, along the walls, a number of little brass hooks, and in one corner a 10-foot (duh) pole with a hook at the end of it: the ‘walls’ on which the paintings sit are in reality huge hinged boards and can be swung away, revealing the real walls below, which are also hung with paintings, creating twice the hanging space. In all cases, the paintings on the ‘real’ walls are corresponding images of the same speculative buildings, but in ruins, lovingly imagined. In some, if you look closely, tiny figures can be discerned, going stiff-limbed about some uncertain business.

Finally, there is the basement section of the museum, reached either through the kitchen area at the front of the basement or through a single-file, hairpin-bend staircase behind the gallery, visible on the plan. Down here are Soane’s most valuable antiquities, again to be found amid a confusing jumble of narrow vaults and passageways. The only place of any size here is the so-called Monk’s Parlour, which is directly below the Picture Room, though it’s
also not very big: it’s a little sitting room crammed with further antiquities and supposedly for the use of ‘Father John’, a ghostly monk who Soane has made up to spook and amuse visitors. There is a little altar here for his ‘private devotions’: also a crucifix of odd design and inlaid jet, worth about 700 and purportedly a saintly relic. This is one of the more famous antiquities in the museum and one that the party might be specifically commissioned to obtain.


Other than this, the basement contains a further selection of passages, many of them with ornate plaster vaulting. The section labelled ‘crypt’ is where Soane keeps most of his funerary monuments: ancient tombstones, urns and so on, and also a cast of a death mask. Soane says it depicts a pirate called Parker: it is actually of a vastly older and more occult entity, and might again be the focus of a specific commission. Also in the crypt, hanging from one wall, is a set of rusting iron manacles, said to have held a king - nobody is quite sure which one - during a revolutionary trial. These again might be the focus of a specific request. To the west, where the kitchen passages join onto the museum basement, is the lower model room, which would be a slightly more open space but is filled with wooden and paper models of some of Soane’s favourite buildings: landmarks of architecture from around the world, including the Parthenon, the Pantheon in Rome and the temples at Karnak. This last is inlaid with gold leaf and particularly valuable, although it is about the size of a child’s coffin and would be hard to steal.

Finally, there is the area marked as Belzoni’s chamber, looked down upon by the balcony
above and surrounded by narrow passages on all sides. This space contains Soane’s pride and joy, the most valuable item in his collection, coveted by many others, the installation of which was celebrated with a three-day party: the sarcophagus of an Egyptian pharoah, Seti: it is a massive block of white alabaster inlaid with blue hieroglyphics, large enough that the rim of it (there is no lid) comes up to a man’s chin. Such a man, looking over the rim at night, would see a surprising thing: Soane, wrapped in a sheet inscribed with hieroglyphs. He has been gradually turning himself into an immensely powerful sorcerer-mummy for years now. He is not a fan of intruders.

Soane’s mummy takes 2d10 minutes to awaken: but this is timed either from the moment the party enters the museum (if they’ve not been invited) or (if they have) from the moment
they first steal an antiquity. Unless stopping the party becomes urgent, though, he will wait in the sarcophagus, since once the party are there they are in the deepest part of the museum. He is a mummy of whatever power level you deem appropriate, basically, but he ought to have a decent chance of slaughtering the party. He will have some help when dealing with intruders, as well. Lucy, who is his psychic thrall (and the only person in the house who knows Soane’s true nature) and with whom he can communicate telepathically, will raise the alarm in the house, at which John and George will seize the swords from the umbrella stand and go after the intruders - they are foolhardy and not very good fighters but they know the house. Tommy the bootboy, meanwhile, will run out of the house to fetch the night watch, 2d6 of whom will show up 2d10 minutes after he leaves. They are not much as fighters either, but as with George and John their chief function is to hem the party in with the mummy. Of them all only Lucy knows Soane's true nature, but the rest of the inhabtiants of the house are a) loyal to Soane and b) do not think him wandering around in a sort of sorcerous dressing gown all night muttering is odd behaviour by his standards (which it isn't). Most of the notable antiquities - the mask, the crucifix, the manacles - have occult properties and are, obviously, in some way involved in his project to become a mummy and, ultimately, a lich.

It will be noted that one of the upshots of Soane’s many modifications is that there is no back way out of the house. The museum is a trap. If you’re ever in London, you should go and visit it.