Thursday, September 27, 2012

Getting Worse

House rules do two things.  First, they smooth over a problem which has cropped up in a group's use of the rules.  Secondly, they mold behavior (you can call this "attempt to emulate genre" if you like).  These are not mutually exclusive, of course - some house rules do both things.  Often the 'problem' the house rule fixes is one related to the behavior/genre you're aiming for.  As an outgrowth of this second category, a house rule is also a way to (mechanically) finish the sentence, "this campaign is D&D, except...".   There are genre considerations, there are at-the-table considerations, and more, but it all gets patched up with house rules.

Wampus Country has a handful of what I would consider fairly minor house rules which finish that sentence - "Wampus is D&D, except...".  And it's all behavior/genre stuff so far.  When I decided I knew in my mind's eye what Wampus Country looked like, I had to shape the rules and player behavior with firearms and genre-appropriate hats and armor; those rules are under the 'House Rules' tab above.  More recently, I added another set of house rules that address healing (making it more available) and a throwaway bit on musical talent (again, shaping the feel of the setting).  Have any of these house rules revolutionized my Labyrinth Lord gameplay?  No, not really - they're a collection of minor affectations at best.  But some house rules have larger footprints than others.

In that spirit, following on from the previous post, let's talk about It Gets Worse.

The whole concept behind It Gets Worse is that in an adventure based on tall tale and fairy-tale logic, played partly for laughs, Death should not be common; or, to put it a different way, the fear of PC Death should not inhibit characters from doing tall-tale things.  Instead, in lieu of Death and Risk of Death, much of the time the characters should be thrown from the frying pan into the fire, thrust into new situations where they are in equal (or more) danger, but different somehow.  Call it escalation, call it switching gears (from a physical challenge to a social one, for example), whatever.  That's the concept - instead of all the PCs being dead from a TPK, they're all knocked out and wake up in an even crappier situation (ideally one that's also awkward and funny and all of those things we desire).

Now, when we first start to think about this concept and it makes a bit of sense, it's very easy to get on board with the experiment, but there are (at least) two dangling questions.  The first is, Will This Work?  I don't have an answer to that yet - only using the house rule in play will tell us if it helps shape behavior (both the players' and my own) and gets us down the road to the Platonic Wampus Ideal.  The second question is: How Can This Thing Be Implemented?  That's a tricky one, too.

Over the past week I've had several people ask me if I'm going to whip up a Wampus-equivalent of a "Death and Dismemberment" table which could serve as an aid to It Gets Worse.  Frankly, I don't think that's the answer.  With so many potential variations in the situations which might require this kind of escalation, I think a table would end up nonsensical; the Getting Worse needs to make narrative sense as a follow-on to whatever happened previous.  Standard escalation of this sort, as far as I can tell, tends to result in either a new situation best trumped with fast-talk or trickery (aka "the fairy-tale option") or a new situation with increased physical danger which is escaped through physical prowess (aka "the pulp option"; Star Wars movies are good at this, as you'll realize in a moment).

However, we can certainly talk about the sorts of things one might be thinking about when aiming for It Gets Worse as a principle of how the campaign works.  As I see it, there are some general categories of It Gets Worse: at base, you're looking at either a new physical danger, or a new social (or maybe moral) dilemma.  And, at the same time, the development offers the character(s) a new chance to act or talk their way out of the new problem.  Below, a sample list of quandries (Q) and It Gets Worse (IGW).  Some of these will look familiar from previous posts.

Q: The party is defeated by enemies.  (Could be a TPK or a capture scenario)

IGW:  The party wakes in deeper danger which could have a physical or social solution, but at least it's another chance...some options may include 1) in the stewpot; the enemies want to eat you  (alternately, captured to be fattened up), 2) tied to stakes, with the bonfire about to be lit, 3) shoved into gladiatorial combat with something potentially even worse than the enemies, or at least more visceral (see Return of the Jedi and Attack of the Clones). etc.

Q: Bingo the Bard falls out of a hot air balloon several miles up.  He should be dead, no roll.

IGW:  Bingo is snatched mid-fall by a tremendous bird and brought back to an immense nest to be fed to giant baby birds.

In a "deeper danger" scenario you're trading one physical predicament - which you've already lost, mind you - for another, different physical predicament.  It's a second chance, and one which might cater to different skills (figuratively or literally).

Q:  Professor Fizzlewand, the party wizard, is shoved over a cliff and by rights ought to fall in the lava river or be dashed to pieces on the rocks below.

IGW: Fizzlewand is injured on the rocks but rescued and nursed back to health by the Lava Men, who either need him to do something or, via mistaken identity or prophetic timing, see him as the answer to their problems.  Perhaps he's their expected Messiah - the difficulty being that the Magmessiah is supposed to lead the Lava Men in their war against the Dao...  (Note that there's already some PC failure there in the fall; this is not the same as C-3PO's player throwing some kind of chip at the GM and shouting "Um, they think I'm their god or something!" preemptively.  This is not a shift in agency unless the DM actually asks the players for suggestions as to how It Gets Worse, and that's certainly not mandatory!)

Q: The party is subdued by the authorities and tossed into prison.

IGW:  The party is approached in jail by the nefarious bandit Billy Buzzsaw, who wants their assistance for a big breakout - tonight!  Let's hope that cutthroat Billy doesn't figure out that one of the PCs, Lightfinger the Thief, is the same smiling lothario who's been making time with Mrs. Buzzsaw for the last six months...awkward!  (In a situation like this you're pairing the physical challenge of the breakout attempt with the social juggling of the hidden relationship - you can bet I'd be leaning on that second part the whole time, and Buzzsaw would figure it out at the end of the breakout (if successful), so that the PC is trading freedom for a new enemy)

 In these situations, the character has an obvious but dangerous physical option (fight, run) and a nonsatisfactory but less dangerous social option (play along).

Q:  While attempting to burgle the Sultan's opulent palace, the lone PC is knocked unconscious by a sleeping-gas trap on a chest.

IGW:  The PC is found on the floor and awakened by the near-sighted Sultan, who takes the PC to be the new eunuch he ordered and immediately puts him in charge of the harem.

Q:  The PCs are captured by the authorities and about to be hanged - all attempts at escape thus far have failed, and as they stand on the gallows, their doom seems certain.  Narrated TPK imminent.

IGW:  The PCs are rescued by members of a secret revolutionary society and shuffled off to a secret meeting-place -- because the revolutionaries think the PCs have special information.  Of course, if the PCs admit they don't know the information, they'll be killed...

In these situations, the primary quandry is one which is best conquerable through social interaction - fast-talk, trickery, etc.  Stacking lie upon lie is 100% fairy-tale approved.

One potential problem that comes to mind with the It Gets Worse goal is that of an infinite loop - failure, escalation, failure, escalation, ad infinitum.  It's possible, but I don't think it's likely, unless every escalation were greater physical danger of a very narrow type (ie, combat).  If you're mixing up potential solutions, I don't foresee a major problem, especially since players are going to come up with stuff you never would have considered.

The real trick to all of this is going to be enacting a situation which seems horrible, but which can be turned to   the party's advantage via player cleverness - and what's more sandboxy than that, really?  Plenty of PCs would see that giant-bird's-nest situation and think "there must be a way out of this that also conveniently gets me a giant bird for a mount".  Or a tribe of Lava Men as henchmen.  Or the Sultan's harem as allies, and so forth.  The escalation of It Gets Worse isn't an ultimatum by the DM, it's a volley back and forth between the DM and the players.

By rights, Bartholomew should've been killed by that  goblin's arrow; instead, however, the DM determined that It Got Worse.  Bartholomew had only been knocked out, but the flint-headed arrow had shattered the potion of giant size he carried and spilled it across the grass.  Now, as he woke, Bartholomew realized both that his rifle was missing, and that he'd been hunting rabbits in the same spot for some six years now, and they remembered him.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Confession: I Am Not An Old-School DM

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about Wampus Country, and what I like in a game I'm running (as opposed to a game I'm playing), and I've had some realizations, I'm afraid.

I'm not very old-school at all.

Let me explain what I mean by that.  When I first started getting back into older editions of D&D and decided to use Labyrinth Lord as the engine, I spent a lot of time swimming around in the OSR blogosphere and reading related material.  I didn't absorb everything I read - a lot of it didn't hook me as interesting, as I'm not into the minutiae of the different early versions, or "how Gygax did it", or any of that; but there were things there I saw as valuable that I wanted to try to emulate.  I wanted to do Wampus Country as a kind of fantasy Oregon Trail, y'know, with a hexcrawl.  Because hexcrawling is an old-school thing to do, and I wasn't really hyped up on megadungeons or even dungeons-of-normative-size.

So what did I do?  I started up a campaign and promptly ignored the things I said I was going to do.  There's been exactly zero actual hexcrawling going on in Wampus Country.  Now, some people might have this epiphany and take the opportunity to double-down on old-schooling it in order to bring the campaign back in line with the original goal.  But that's not where I'm headed.

See, things keep cropping up.  You know how when you're getting a setting going, you can look at a picture and tell whether it "belongs" in the setting or not?  And how you sort of do that with rules as well?  I've been having issues with some rules.  Death, for one.

It came up through play, at least, so that feels relatively pure if we're keeping score.  I had to make the call as to whether PCs died at zero hit points, or could go to -10, or negative CON, or whatever.  And it bothered me.  Really really bothered me.  Not because I have a hard time killing off PCs - I've done it in the past and not lost any sleep over it - but because contemplating this particular rule didn't feel Wampus.  At all.  I didn't know where I wanted the lethality line to lay because I had an intrinsic problem with the way that line looked in general.  Didn't know what to do.

Drowning in angst, I was lifted to safety by a couple of my G+ players who plainly stated the thing I'd been struggling to wrap my brain around:  Wampus Country isn't about dying.  Yes, PCs can die, and I'm sure someday someone will be the first, but that isn't what the setting is supposed to be about.  It's supposed to be about tall tales and fairy tales and awkward humor and silly NPC voices and all of that, just as much as it's supposed to be about exploration and lost valleys full of weirdness and occasional gunslinging.

What really fits the fairy tale model better - and let's give Keith full credit for the nomenclature here - is "It Gets Worse".  Nobody dies halfway through a fairy tale, they get...complicated.  So we agreed to try it that way and see how it worked out.  TPK'd by ogres?  Party wakes up in the stewpot, because [in lieu of massive death] It Got Worse.  Fall out of a hot-air balloon?  You're not splatted against a mountainside - you're plucked out of the air by a giant bluejay to be fed to its young, because It Got Worse.  This is how heroes end up unwillingly married to the Hippopotamus Princess and all that kind of crazy stuff that is 100% Wampus.  The fairy tale structure is one of frying-pans and fires, where the clever protagonists spend their time spinning every It Got Worse back into an advantage.  THAT'S what I wanted.  I can't expect PCs to try tall tale things - like roping and riding a cyclone, let's say - if normal physics (real-world OR D&D) are in play.  It just won't work.  So, instead...It Gets Worse.

That sorted, I felt much better.  Is it some sort of narrative-control regime?  Well, no, although it does feel a bit like script immunity, the players aren't setting stakes and throwing chips in my face or any of that - I'm still the DM.  It might have root-beer-scented stickers on it, but it's still my Viking Hat.

That change led me to reexamine everything I'd been doing with the campaign.  (This was all contemporary with some strife at work which was a catalyst for General Introspection 2012 - you know how these things occasionally go.)   Some things had changed to accommodate both the FLAILSNAILS thing and the expectations of my player base - or, more fairly, what I assumed were the expectations of my player base.  That was crazy-dumb.  Nobody signed up for Wampus Country expecting Castle Greyhawk.  Why did I think I needed to put dungeons and crap in there?  I mean, some dungeons, sure, fine, but we've spent more time in dungeons than I would have projected, and why?  I have no idea.  Projections of expectations of blah blah.  We've spent more sessions underground than we have in the mythic wilderness.  WAMPUS FAIL.

So it all resonated back to an earlier conversation I'd had with Evan, wherein I boldly stated that I didn't need or want a lot of METAL in my D&D.  It was a touch-and-go exchange for a bit there where I thought I might be coming off sounding as though I were criticizing someone else's playstyle or DM-style, but by the end of it I think we understood each other.  There's a difference between Erik the DM and Erik the Player.  Erik the Player is perfectly content to rock out in someone's heavy-metal sword-and-sorcery setting.  I will stab Serpent Kings all goddamn day without complaint.  But campaigns are often an expression of the DM - and that's what's so great about them all being different - and Erik the DM is totally NOT METAL.  Which is why any attempts I've made to ape the "old school aesthetic" - however honestly, with whatever well-meaning intentions - always feel hollow and unsatisfactory to me in the end.
Segar would be perfect to illustrate Wampus Country, by the way.

I am who I am, and there's nothing wrong with that.  I'm big into the comedy thing.  It's foolish of me to expect myself to run anything that doesn't have a certain lightness, a certain optimism, and a lot of room for humor (broad or otherwise) in it.  That's who I am.  I like running a light game with a decent amount of silly in it, and I like occasional narrative flourishes that would make a grognard's eyes bleed.  And so what?  Nobody shows up at a They Might Be Giants show to hear Black Sabbath (although TMBG covering Sabbath would be awesome in a ha-ha way, and that's exactly what me running Tomb of Horrors would be like, if you're following my metaphor).  And that's the lesson - not just for me, but for you.

Be who you are.  Figure out what your 'thing' is - understanding that your 'thing' might be something different in a year or five - and kick ass at it.  Your campaign is some facet of you; it springs from your experience, what you're into right now, and all of that.  Acknowledge that connection and run with it.  And if that means you aren't what you thought you were, good.  That's called growing.

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.     --Jorge Luis Borges

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ice Pirates of the Snowdeeps

No, not those Ice Pirates.  But it is "Talk Like A Pirate Day", so I'm setting aside my usual curmudgeonliness and doing a post about pirates.  Sort of.

I finally finished up the arctic/tundra dungeon I was working on for The Secret DM's dungeon contest and sent it on its merry way last night.  I can't post it here yet, as the contest is ongoing, but I can certainly talk about the thought process behind it and get into some of the cutting-room-floor stuff, including those eponymous Ice Pirates.

Once I had decided to enter the contest as a writing exercise, I knew early on I wanted to go 'arctic'.  I wanted ice and snow and probably an ice para-elemental, because I love para-elementals for no good reason.  So the dungeon in question is carved into a glacier.  Here's the thing, though - I don't normally care for dungeons, certainly not big ones, so setting about writing one was a bit of a challenge.  I ended up with more of an 'adventure area' than a full-blown dungeon: four sets of chambers within the glacier, plus a potentially-friendly humanoid village outside the glacier.  Is it a 'proper' dungeon?  Maybe not.  It's pretty deadly, though - this was a "first edition feel" contest, after all - and there are a couple of really nasty encounters in there (the para-elemental, a dragon, a ghost, plus assorted lesser rabble including a group of brigands led by a foxwoman).  I'm pleased that the para-elemental and the foxwoman continue my attempt to use stuff from Monster Manual II as much as possible in Wampus Country.  And of course I loved the village of polar bears; yet what tickled me most of all was the idea of dwarven pirates on ski-boats, sailing across the icy tundra; they appear on the wilderness encounter table in the glacier-dungeon, but here's some more detail.


The region of the Wampus Country to the far north, in the tundra and taiga, is known generally as the Snowdeeps.  It is a place where few civilized men travel, as there is little profit in it; the vast, frozen wastes are dominated by wildlife, assorted monstrous beasts, and several dwarven settlements amongst the windswept mountains.  Best-known pockets of civilization amidst the blowing snow include the fortress-towns of Rimespire and Doomhollow, and the barbarian trading-post at Dropfinger Pass.

Although many of the dwarven towns and cities are either wholly subterranean or connected by a network of trade-tunnels, travel aboveground is also necessary, and is accomplished by means of various sorts of wind-powered landships.  These craft generally resemble yachts or ships of the sea, modified to be mounted on ski or skate-like protrusions beneath the hull of the craft.  Larger snowships can easily carry cargo (including livestock) and move at a respectable clip during the constant windstorms in the north.  The smaller sloops and yachts are often modified to be quite fast, despite all the garish decoration hanging from the gunwales.

Naturally, wherever there is transit, piracy springs up.  Several small bands of dwarven "ice pirates" have recently begun attacking both merchant snowships and expeditions on foot.  Typically these pirates use a smaller, fast ship armed with a deck gun; on at least one occasion three or four pirate racers have teamed up to take down a massive armed barge.  Typically a crew of ice pirates will have one or two settlements they call "home", and raid against other settlements; in this sense they are sometimes as much privateers as pirates.  Snow-racer culture has taken hold of the dwarven youth for the past fifty years, and every beardling of the North apes pirate fashion and dreams of having their own snow-sloop to race at furious speeds.  As such, most of the snow-dwarves encountered outside the fortress-cities will be of this sort: young, ambitious, desperate to prove their masculinity, and festooned with both weapons and ostentatious jewelry.  Although firearms are sometimes imported from the south, most revolvers one sees in the Snowdeeps are of dwarven make.  The most popular style of pistol actually ejects the cartridge from the left side of the weapon, and this was initially considered a dwarven technical advance; however, hot cartridges tend to singe beards, so a courteous ice-pirate turns his pistol sideways before firing, so that the cartridge falls downward rather than jettisoning into his fellow's nicely-oiled beard.


1 - dangerous ice pirates aboard a gaudy snow-sloop (deck gun, rifles, hand weapons)
"Hand it over, quick-like, or we'll hobble ya and leave ya for the tundra-wights!"

2 - dwarven hunting expedition, armed to the teeth, in an armored yacht (deck gun, harpoon guns, rifles)  "D'ye know what remorhaz meat fetches back in Doomhollow, lad?"

3 - wealthy dwarf's domed pleasure-yacht, decently armed
"Come aboard, friends, there's cinnamon-mead and morally-bankrupt shorties for all of ye!"

4 - group of 1d4+1 ice-catamaran or snow-sailboard racers hot-dogging and doing sick tricks
"Y'wanna follow us to the party, you're gonna have to move faster than that!"

5 - armed & armored snow-cutter on a punitive expedition
"Enough's enough.  We'll show those frost-goblins who rules the 'deeps."

6 - large merchant vessel with 1d4 escort sloops, moving cargo between cities
"Time is money, friend - if you want aboard, ye best be climbin' that ladder, 'cause we hain't stoppin'!"

Goggles or similar to protect from whiteout are ubiquitous.

1 - pirate coat in bright colors
2 - tricorn with ridiculous feathers
3 - bandana tied around the head
4 - tricorn, worn backwards or sideways
5 - mohawk, dreadlocks, or hair-spikes
6 - sash or cummerbund with coins sewn onto it
7 - oversized pantaloons, extra pistol tucked in waistband
8 - huge bejewelled belt-buckle
9 - swashbuckler boots in colorful leather, meticulously maintained and cleaned
10 - silk/satin jacket and pants in matching color scheme

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Vikings vs. Magic Mushrooms

The Great Khan put out a call for viking-themed one-page dungeons over here.  The contest is ongoing, and runs through October 1st.

You can take a look at my submission right here.

It's called The Kvasisgaldr Road, and involves sword-brothers walking the 'road' of an ancient runic petroglyph in order to experience an ecstatic journey which will create a deep bond prior to undertaking something big - a quest, a war, whatever.  It's short - I think it's a single session, or maybe less, depending on how things are run.

I was having a difficult time trying to figure out what I wanted to do with this submission.  I'd never done a one-page dungeon before, and I was bothered by my lack of artistic ability.  Worried that any map I did would turn out like crap anyway, I finally struck up on the idea of doing a map shaped like a rune, since it was viking-y and would allow me to use a simple shape for the map.  Rune, map - petroglyph!  The rest of the thing wrote itself pretty quickly, although I'm second-guessing myself now about whether I got the point across despite the brevity.  I wanted to give it a shot, but I didn't spend much time on it, as I've been mostly working on my dungeon for the Secret DM's contest, which is much longer and more involved.  Of course, shorter formats are sometimes more demanding in their own way!  Since the dungeon I'm writing up for the other contest is tundra-based, I could plop this one-pager down nearby pretty easily.

Who knows what I'll think of this one-pager when I look back on it in a few months.  I like the general conceit of vikings eating magic mushrooms and walking a rune-shaped petroglyph "road" in order to have a shared ecstatic experience.  The actual encounters on that road?  Meh, they're vikingish and related to the theme of the setup, but I don't think there's much there compared to some of these one-page dungeons we see with twenty rooms jammed in there.  But if the only takeaway is the gimmick - which I think is potentially worth stealing, even if you used a different sort of sigil or something - I'm okay with that.  It was fun to have the idea hit and then try to power through the writing; the point of the exercise, as always, is to attempt to produce something decent quickly and just go where the ideas lead.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

On Illusionists

Illusionists are weird.  There, I said it.

In latter-day D&D where Illusionists are just a variety of magical specialist, everything about them makes sense.  You might not care for the way they're written up, but they match all the other specialists.  But in older versions, and in Labyrinth Lord, they're the only magical specialists.  Why Illusionists?  What's so special about them?  And how do they fit into a campaign milieu and a setting?

I hadn't put any real thought into Illusionists until someone came along and played one in Wampus Country.  My first thought was that maybe the theme should be fairy-related, and the whole Illusionist schtick would be fairy glamour.  But the spell list for Illusionists contains far more than just illusions.  What about color spray?  What about all those shadow-related spells 2e Illusionists used to get?  And what about that whole "illusion magic is its own language" crap from back in the day?

This is what I came up with...


Illusionist, mesmerist, trickster, prism-wizard, rainbow sorceror, shadow-mage...

So-called "illusion magic" of Wampus Country is a subset and specialty of several of the better-known arcane sciences, combining magic which affects the senses with powerful spells focused on shaping and manipulating light and shadow.  Very few sorcerors specialize in these arts; some are steered toward illusion by fairy ancestry or some other event which contorts the magic-user's mind to make them see the world in this way.

Illusion is a philosophy, not a magical system.  Illusionists can read magic in the same way as 'normal' wizards, there's no need for a separate 'read illusonist magic' spell or any of that.  Some spells can be cast by both magic-users and illusionists, but there are other dweomers which can only be utilized by illusionists or by 'vanilla' wizards.

The magic mastered by illusionists generally falls into one or more of several categories, listed below with example spells:

Aesthetic/Sensory magic - those ensorcellments which affect the target's senses directly, either by creating the seemingn of something, or by denying the victim the use of one or more senses.  Many of these spells function by manipulating the interplay between light and darkness, and this category serves as both a catch-all and a middle ground between the two subschools of illusion listed below. (Auditory Illusion/Audible Glamer, Blindness, Blur, Confusion, Deafness, Doppelganger, Hallucinatory Terrain, Hypnotism, Invisibility, etc)

Prismatic/Rainbow magic - those spells which harness the power of light, especially any which draw on the legendary presence of the cosmic rainbow and its associated powers.  (Color Spray, Dancing Lights, Hypnotic Pattern, Illusory Stamina, Prismatic anything, etc)

Darkness/Shadow magic - that handful of enchantments which manipulate and shape mundane shadow and twilight, or draw power directly from the realms of shadows. (Darkness, Fear, Fog Cloud, Implant Emotion, any of the shadow-related spells, etc)

At higher levels of mastery, illusionists are said to specialize in either rainbow or shadow magic as they build strong connections to those mystical realms and find themselves inextricably embroiled in the ancient enmities between light and darkness and becoming a captain in this war - including learning the important ability to project themselves astrally.  Witting or not, even the lowest-level illusionist is a pawn in this extradimensional chess game.

Regarding Conjure Animals:  I had completely forgotten this was an Illusionist spell, although it makes sense in a rabbit-from-a-hat way.  For Wampus Country, when an Illusionist learns this spell, he or she must decide whether it is the "rainbow" or "shadow" version; the animals conjured will be different.

Procuring new spells:  As an illusionist, learning new spells can be a pain.  You can learn allowable spells from your magic-user buddies, but for the most part you'll need to learn illusion magic from scrolls and from interactions with fairies and creatures of the rainbow or shadow persuasion.  Keep an eye out.

Ilusionists understand the cosmic truth of the prism, and its link to so-called rainbow sorcery from beyond.
You won't be making jokes when a high-level illusionist summons a herd of singing rainbow-unicorns to trample your state-of-the-art castle into so much dust.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Mole's Tale

If you're not getting your gaming fix in person, and you're still not playing're missing out.

There are so many different games being played - via Google Hangout, via Roll20 or other virtual tabletops...  there's no excuse anymore.  Some folks say that playing online isn't the same as playing face-to-face (of course it's not).  Some will tell you that it isn't as satisfying (which is comparing pizza and cheeseburgers).

Forget all that.  I'm loving it, and you should give it a shot.  The game for you is probably out there.  I've seen people play World of Darkness stuff, ICONs, every indie game under the sun, Shadowrun, Traveller, and six million variants of old-school D&D.  And if old-school D&D is something you're into (and I presume it is, because you're reading these words), you need to know about a thing called FLAILSNAILS.  If you're not familiar, go google it now - the first result should be a post over at Jeff's Gameblog laying out the concept.

Within FLAILSNAILS, your PC can jump campaigns willy-nilly between any and all participating games.  You can be trekking across the desert fighting man-scorpions one week, and delving in a mega-dungeon the next, accruing xp along the way.  It's a great way to sample all kinds of DMs, settings, house rules, and tones, and it's a ton of fun.  So much fun, in fact, I'm going to spend the rest of this post telling you about my FLAILSNAILS PCs and what they've done.  Yes, the cardinal sin of "tell me about your character".

The first PC I created - well, no, let's do him last.  Because he's the one that's still alive, and that makes him a badass.

I rolled up a fighter (knight) for the Flailsnails Jousting Tournament, which brought together both established world-jumping PCs and freshly-rolled knights for a play-by-post run at the lists with fabulous in-game prizes.  Sir Polycarp had mediocre stats and a crap Charisma, so I decided he was a portly, greedy, entitled son-of-a-bitch who wasn't afraid to treat people like dung.  He had the opportunity to do a little smack-talking, and then proceeded to get killed on his very first tilt.  Stone dead.  Later, a cleric from a different campaign surreptitiously purchased the corpse of Sir Polycarp from his "loyal" retainer Dog's-Arse.  One day poor Polycarp might be resurrected to fight in a war on some far-flung campaign world...

Note the ironic motto.  That worked out nicely.

My second knight for the ongoing joust, I decided, was going to be a Wampus Country native, and why not?  With the scores I rolled...ugh.  Thus was born the terribly fragile Father Tobit, the Oldest Man In Wampus Country, also known as the Dread Vicar of Cadaver Canyon.  Easily in his nineties, Father Tobit, a cleric (naturally), had to be lifted up into the saddle by his retainers.  He was a toothless, senile, cackling wonder, and I loved him.  I did a lot more yakking in the play-by-post this time around, and felt like maybe Tobit was on the way to making some allies - he even won a round of jousting.  Then, on the first tilt of the second round, Tobit unfortunately had a lance get under his helmet and pierce him through the throat and skull.  Stone dead.  I should perhaps mention that, as luck would have it, both Polycarp and Tobit were killed by the same damn knight.  The player of said knight was apologetic, but it wasn't necessary, because it was freaking hilarious.  Anyway, Tobit's memory lives on, as he was supposed to be one of the clerics in Thistlemarch for my own game.  Instead, he became a rumor and a void to be filled, and the Church of the White Mouse has struggled to find a replacement for his parish, which generated plot for the Wampus Country game.

There's another jousting tournament coming up, and I may try yet again.  If so, I'll roll up a new knight, and use the name and heraldry my son came up with months ago when we were round-robin telling a story about knights and castles.  Get ready, multiverse, here comes Sir Clickety-Klack!

So now we come back to my first FLAILSNAILS-compatible PC, and the Mole's Tale.

I signed up for a game of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness, a game I loved back in the day.  It was to be run using the After the Bomb setting, wherein mutant animals are the majority in a post-apocalyptic world, and more specifically we'd be using the Avalon part of that setting - mutant knights, Arthurian this-and-that, etc.  Very cool stuff.  I randomly rolled a species, and ended up with a mole.

Maybe some players would have been disappointed with a mole, but not I.  Especially once I rolled some stats and bought the little guy's powers (after agonizing over how to spend the BIO-E points, as one does in this game).  It looked like Bumphrey - that was his name - was kind of a little badass.  He was strong, relatively tough, and he could tunnel like the dickens, because he was a soldier and a sapper.  In picking his skills, I went with a bunch of "support" skills as I envisioned him as being this friendly, happy-go-lucky mole dude who traveled with his army unit, singing and telling jokes and making dinner.  He had a 'Winnie the Pooh' vibe going on, if Pooh-bear occasionally hulked out and put an axe through somebody's face.  He had cooking and dancing and singing as skills, as well as 'giant insect husbandry'.  In Avalon, they use giant insects for mounts, and that was Bumphrey's bag.  This will come up later.

That first adventure, Bumphrey teamed up with an elf-turned-mutant-peacock from another campaign and ended up getting shot at quite a bit, but they put the hurt on the bad guys as well.  There were encounters with some "droogs" and pumas and SAECSN troops (pronounced 'Saxon' in the setting, get it?).  Turns out, the man-mole is a really great shot with a Winchester rifle!  Bumphrey loved following the peacock around, as the peacock was a knight, and Bumphrey - being a commoner according to how the setting worked - had idolized the knights since he was a child.  He even got a chance to use his cooking skill to make a fine stew to impress the (potentially-hostile) droogs.  The game went on pause after that session, but the characters didn't, because of FLAILSNAILS.  I translated the mole-man's Palladium stats into Labyrinth Lord stats - making him a dwarf, because that made sense with the mole thing - and next thing you know, he's roughly compatible with a hundred different games.

Bumphrey's next adventure found him on a mysterious ship at sail on the seas of fate.  Following a dinosaur attack and a mutiny on the ship, Bumphrey and his soon-to-be companions leaped overboard and swam for a nearby island.  Of course, that island was in fact an ancient Serpent Ark, the time-and-space-travelling tomb for these crazy serpent-men.  Some delving and combat ensued, as one might imagine, as although all the serpent-men seemed to be dead and mummified, there were guardians and wild beasts to be dealt with.  In this adventure, one of Bumphrey's companions was Sir Alan of Partridge, who wielded the legendary sword Chatscalibur - so of course, as a good Avalonian, Bumphrey called him "my liege" all night.

The third adventure was also at sea, so that was nice and themey.  Bumphrey was fished out of that magical sea and found himself aboard the HMS Apollyon, a long-abandoned ghost of a megaliner ship that was now essentially a floating megadungeon adrift through spacetime.  Needing to earn his keep in order to be fed and housed, Bumphrey joined some other riff-raff in searching the bowels of the ship for useful junk.  During that adventure - which at one point involved a weird human sacrifice and some fish-cultist diving-suits - the party was confronted with a species known as the crawling death.  Crawling death?  They looked like little earthworm/dog halfbreeds!  Bumphrey saw earthworms and realized there was an opportunity here.  Multiple attempts to secure a live crawling-death or an egg sac were fruitless.  Our poor man-mole was frustrated.  Then, while the group was investigating an old office, up through the rusty flooring came the largest worm-dog-monstrosity any of us had ever seen.  It was huge, had numerous legs, a slavering maw, and what looked like horrific human faces down its flank.  Obviously, we had to kill it.  Using his knowledge of how giant insects work and think (okay, not really, it was just a good roll), Bumphrey climbed up onto the worm-beast's back and hacked the bejeezus out of it for several rounds, scoring the killing blow.

Where will Bumphrey travel next?  Only time will tell, but I do know this.

 Bumphrey is this close to hitting second level.

He's got a 16 Strength and a shield made out of a U-turn sign from the future.

He has gone swimming in the Seas of Fate (yes, those Seas you're thinking of); he has delved into the Ark of the Serpent-Men and a luxury liner the size of Manhattan, and survived.

He is the mighty Bumphrey, the Man-Mole From The Future; he is the Saxon-Slayer and the Worm-Rider; and he's not going to stop til he hits maximum level or dies in the attempt.

Oh, and if he dies?  There's a game where I can play his ghost in Hell.  Because FLAILSNAILS.

Bumphrey as he appeared during his Avalon days.  Now he rocks some banded mail.  If he lives long enough to get a magic weapon, nothing will ever be the same.

The Once & Future Santicore

He sees you when you're looting
He knows you've sprung a trap
He knows your damn alignment
And he doesn't take no crap

He's making a list
And checking it twice
Gonna give you free stuff that is nice
Santicore is coming to tooooowwwwn

It's Santicore season!

Go here and join in on the fun.  Secret Santicore 2012 is a present-swap of gaming goodness where you submit a request - like some NPCs, or a map, or a mini-adventure, or whatever - and while someone else fulfills your request, you write up something for yet another person.  It's Secret Santa, but all the presents are game stuff.

The Secret Santicore process functions as a gigantic sentient random table, as you never quite know what you're going to get, only that it will answer your request.  My advice for first-time supplicants to the Santicore is pretty simple: keep it vague.  Don't request something so specific that there are only one or two ways the Santicore could answer it - not only is that no fun for the writer, but you're not going to get any sense of surprise out of reading the response.  The fun of Santicore is that you are handing over a spark of something - your request - and letting somebody else run with it before they hand it back and you use it in your game.  Think about the bloggers you read, or the various DMs you've played with.  No two are quite alike, and no two would answer a Santicore request exactly the same way.  That's awesome; embrace it.

Now that Santicore season is upon us, I feel like I ought to look back at the work I did a year ago for Secret Santicore 2011.  Some of it, I'm happy with; other parts less so, which I suppose is normal.

My original assignment was "something useful for a campaign set along the Silk Road (or fantasy equivalent)".  At first I was super-excited to handed not only something which was related to a part of the world I knew something about, but was also nicely vague.  I had room to maneuver.  Then...I had almost too much room to maneuver.  What the hell was I going to do that would fit in a Silk Road campaign?  I reread some basic stuff on the Silk Road looking for inspiration, but at the end of the day I circled back to the very nature of the Road itself - commerce.  That's why the article ended up being Merchants of the Silk Road, a handful of random tables.  These weren't the first random tables I'd ever written, but it was a habit I was just getting back into after kicking off this blog, and I think they turned out nicely.

I thought I was done, but I wasn't nearly done.  See, when you have a project with a deadline, sometimes stuff comes in late, or not at all.  So as Santicore got down to the wire, the Mighty Jez needed some help filling in requests that hadn't come in yet; thankfully, I had a week off from work - the first lengthy time I'd taken off during the holidays in a decade, actually - so I piped up.

I was asked to start hacking away at a request for "fifty ways plants can kill PCs".  Over the course of that day, with the help of Dylan and some ideas from my wife, out came fifty killer plants.  This was not an easy assignment by any stretch.  Fifty killer plants - and I had resolved to avoid doing anything that resembled the classic ones in the Monster Manual, etc.  My first approach was to try to do it as random tables, where you might roll for the form of the plant, then how it kills you (thorns, poison, etc).  That wasn't working, so I scrapped it and just got stuck in and started reading up on wacky plants (starting with carnivorous ones) that could get amped up as monsters.  In the end, I learned two things.  First, the first 70% of a random table or listing gets done quick - it's the last bit that takes forever.  Secondly, be careful how you love your babies.  Just as I was submitting my fifty angry vegetables, the author originally assigned that request turned in his.  I was disappointed, but ready to see my stuff hit the floor.  In his wisdom, Jez included both articles, providing Santicore fans a whopping 75 killer plants.  I was surprised at how little overlap there was between our Doom By Green article and the other one; I have since used plants from both articles in my games.  If I get an appropriate request this year, I'll certainly consider using the 'Doom by [color]' nomenclature, but I think Raggi has 'Death Blah Doom' rather claimed!

And there were yet more requests to fill.  Other Little Helpers were furiously cranking out articles as well, but my next assignment (being the dude who was off all week) was "a lair or dungeon featuring an alliance of goblins and kobolds, and also an evil party of adventurers".  Thus was born The Moon-Eye Caves, which is definitely my least favorite of my contributions.  It was seriously rushed, and I wasn't particularly inspired by the request - I don't know if I was just tired or what, but I couldn't find something in that request to hang a hook onto.  I think the resulting lair, while serviceable, is pretty bland.  Goblins led by a witchy goblin matriarch (Mother Moon-Eye), put-upon kobolds, and a team of nasty adventurer-types.  It is what it is.  I did like the little goblin bar, and I was pleased with some of the kobold traps - especially the one with the pig, as it's a reference to my old gaming group - and I think the map Jez threw together in something like three minutes works fine.  The request asked for a goblin druidess or sorceress with a dire lion companion - which I dutifully turned into a black lynx called Shmoopsy.  If the request had gone to a different author, you would've had a fire-breathing robot lion, no doubt.  Such is the beauty of Santicore.

There was some material in The Moon-Eye Caves which had to be cut for space, though.  Just one paragraph, a room description with a mini-plothook in it, that was trimmed.  Here it is, you can put it in any of the empty rooms in the lair:

Star-Crossed Rendezvous -- This small cave has a few skins hidden in one corner; a sack of silver coins is hidden behind a stalagmite.  A male kobold (Sneezy) and a female goblin (Skidmark) have fallen in love, and use this cave for their romantic trysts - which mostly consist of writing horrible poetry and dreaming aloud about running away “to the big city” to start a family. The sack of coins is their joint savings.  They are both eager to depart, but fear Mother Moon-eye and the kobold elders; they might be amenable to trading information or assistance in exchange for escape and escort to civilization, however.

Ta-da!  Santicore bonus content!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pulling Dungeons From Nowhere

A handful of dungeon-writing contests of which you should be aware...  Call for adventure seeds for Weird Adventures.   Due Sept 17.  I may have mentioned this one in passing previously.  10-20 rooms, "first ed style".  Due Sept 27.  One-page dungeon/sublevel with a "viking" theme.  Due Oct 1.

I love contests like this.  I haven't always entered, but I always think about entering, and I need to get better about actually following through when these crop up; even if I only hit 50% of the ones I spend think-time on, that's a good thing.  Setting parameters and deadlines forces you to squeeze your creativity (and writing-discipline) in new ways, and that's precisely what I want.

I've already submitted my Weird Adventures hook - that was "easiest" of the three in some ways because it didn't involve any mapping or stats or anything, just rumination on a pulp theme, add a dash of weird, and type up a short blurb.

The other two are going to take more elbow grease, I think, but I have a direction in mind for where I want to go with them.  I have to set some parameters for myself, though, namely that whenever possible stuff I do for contests like this has to also be somewhat applicable to my own campaign - trying to make good use of writing-time, after all.   Earlier this week I loosely sketched out some zones and ideas for an 'adventuring area' (which includes the dungeony bit as well as some wilderness) to meet the requirements of the Secret DM contest.  We're headed for the icy tundra!  The contest rules limit the amount of 'backstory' in the entry, but I suspect I'll generate some blogposts with the cutting-room scraps.  (What, the judges don't want bonus pages of rambling about the cultural mores of talking polar bears?  Shame on them, I say!)

Since I just learned about the Khan's contest (Khan-test?  seems like a missed opportunity there) today, I don't have anything concrete in mind yet.  My first thought, since the one-pager is supposed to be viking-themed, or at least viking-appropriate I guess, would be to do something that I can drop into or next to the polar-bear-tundra thing when I run it myself.  Two birds with one stone.  The "vikings" theme is fun, but I know it's going to give me heartburn - the pull between "let's use classic viking tropes" and "let's ignore those same tropes" is going to be rough on this one.  Time to find something obscure to riff off of!