Wednesday, 18 December 2013

A Gift from Dave Morris - Silent Night

Dave Morris has provided everyone with a Christmas present; a detailed, atmospheric, Yule-themed adventure - Silent Night. If possible, I plan to run it while we're away over the holiday. 

Yippee! It's Christmas! Let's Danse.

I'll have convert it - it is written up for GURPS, with which I have zero familiarity*[1]. But to what? To Dragon Warriors? The adventure is set in Legend, after all. And that is a possibility - I actually think that Dragon Warriors is a pretty nifty system for handling gritty D&Dish games. But unless you are going to populate the PC party with a bunch of magic using characters, or exotic Assassins, mechanically the PC Knights (and maybe a Barbarian or two) will be pretty much the same. That's fine in a game where character, personality, and history emerges through play. But for this one shot - that is not so much focused on combat - it is more likely I will try to run it in a d100 system, considering OpenQuest 2e, RuneQuest 6, and Magic World. 

As attracted as I am to RQ6 - it is a wonderful, elegant iteration of d100 fantasy - the players will be my wife, brother, sister, mother, and cousin. That's Christmas for you. While they all have played RPGs before, it'll need to be straightforward pick-up-and-play. When I started to stat-up some pregenerated characters in RQ6, I realised that the character sheet would likely baffle a player being handed the sheet ten minutes before the game begins. Plus, we'd have the confusion over Special Effects, which are a breeze... once you have been involved in combat as few times. So I decided that I'd run it using OpenQuest 2e, which won out over Magic World thanks to the rationalised skill list and the greater versatility of the magic system.*[2] 

The players will have the choice of the following pregenerated characters:

Sir Werian Keppel
A knight, returning from the Crusades. Pious. Uncomplicated.

Brother Abel
Werian's personal priest and tutor. Impatient. Stern.

Hugh Smithson
Werian's squire. Hulking. Brutish.

Alan of Barndale
Troubador. Cynical. Flippant.

Soliman the Saintly
A Ta'ashim convert to the True Faith. Self-taught theologian and Ellesland-ophile.

Nick Lliedr
A greedy rogue. But has a knack for solving problems.

I will be trawling the internet for suitable images with which to decorate the character sheets, and thinking carefully about the place of Battle Magic in a game with the atmosphere of a fantastical Dark Ages/Early Medieval Britain.

*[1]Gurps intimidates me. Even GURPS Lite sends me running for the hills... while I can see the appeal, I can't see it being the kind of game that I could interest our players in.
*[2]In other circumstances I might well make a different choice. With strong player commitment, RQ6 would edge closer to being my choice, while Magic World is a good for Sword & Sorcery thanks to the way that magic using PCs will, by the book, be uncommon. 

Monday, 16 December 2013

I [Heart] Conan

I followed a link on Google+, which transported me back in time to a bunch of 2009 blog posts about D&D and the picaresque [Grognardia, Playing D&D with Porn Stars]. Do read those for interesting thoughts. In the meantime, I had my recent haul from a second-hand bookshop in my bag, and I was prompted to write this post. Even if just to say that I love Conan. And it isn't [just] the mighty thews.

Last week's second-hand bookshop 'score'.

One thing that you don't get from that picture is how slim the books are. Why are fantasy novels so big these days? What? Market forces? "What do we want? Nationalised fantasy novel production. When do we want it? The Hyborian Age!" Actually, only Conan the Conqueror ('The Hour of the Dragon') is actually a novel (and less than 200 pages at that), with the rest of the books being composed of short stories. I love the lurid, Frazetta covers too.

I'm glad that I don't own an omnibus edition of the Conan stories. Gathered together under a 'serious' cover (in hardcover!) there would be the shadow of an overarching narrative cast on these stories. As they are, in little bite-size chunks, you see what a good D&D (or fantasy adventure game of your choice) campaign might look like, when the story is retold after play.

Anyhow, I [heart] Conan.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Campaign Concept: Barbarian Valley

[I caught an important typo before hitting publish. This campaign concept was nearly called 'Barbarian Valet', which sounds like an early 1990s Schwarzenegger movie.]

En lieu of the final play report from Crown of Kings (two sessions of play), I thought I'd offer you a look at our next fantasy campaign. Possibly. We won't be starting until 2014, I guess, with Munchkin likely the game of choice this week. This outline was developed using the 'questionnaire' found in OpenQuest 2e. When/if we play this campaign, we will likely use a d100 ruleset. Not sure which one though...  

Campaign Name: Barbarian Valley

The Gottans; flint-speared hunter gatherers win glory by bringing down bears, mammoths and Bigger Things in the wide, untamed land that the Civilised peoples call Barbarian Valley. Monsters prowl the woods, chiefs scheme to make a kingdom, and the Civilised peoples bring new Gods, new ideas - and bronze! - which threaten to revolutionise Gottan society. But all this takes place in the shadow of Evil stirring in the mountains, with rumours that a Sorcerer has established his dominion over the lost city of Esom the Founder. Make your mark as a Hero of your clan; resist the encroachment of Civilisation or ally yourselves with the Children of the Sun God; free your people from Sorcerous evil, or enchain yourself to the wills of the Dark Ones in pursuit of powers undreamed of; explore the decadent City States of the South, or reshape Barbarian Valley in your image…

Level of Magic: Low/Medium
Within Barbarian Valley only a few native people – mostly shaman and witches – have the ability to use magic. These rare individuals use Animism to contact Ancestor Spirits and other Spirit World entities. A few exceptional non-magicians know a handful of Folk Magic spells.

Beyond Barbarian Valley there are organised religions which use Divine Magic, Sorcerers, and, perhaps somewhere distant, Mystics who have disciplined their body and mind to perform supernatural feats. The PCs will come into contact with the Divine Magic and Sorcery, initially in the form of NPCs (Sun God Priests and Acolytes of the mysterious Sorcerer). The potential for a PC to learn these magical skills exists (or even for a replacement PC to begin play as a Priest or Sorcerer).

The Gottans of Barbarian Valley can be imagined as pseudo-Celts with a heavy dose of the Native American hunter gatherer nations of the Great Plains. Most clans subsist by hunting and gathering, but a few have settled and adopted some basic agriculture. Despite limited material culture – largely consisting of wood, hide, bone and stone – the clans have a sophisticated oral culture maintained by Lawspeakers. The standard organisational level is a clan who claim descent from a heroic ancestor, though sometimes a powerful or charismatic leader binds several clans into a tribe and rules as a (Petty) King. There has not been a High King of the Gottans since the death of Esom the Founder, who led the Gottans to freedom from the slavery of the Snake Men in the Distant South.

At the beginning, your PCs know little of what is beyond the borders of Barbarian Valley. They do know that there are Civilised (ugh!) settled people, who build towns and cities. Not only are the Civilised people soft and have forgotten the ways of their Ancestors, worshipping a family of Sun Gods instead, but most Gottans find the idea of living with domesticated animals disgusting. That the settled people share their towns (even homes) with the animals that they eat reminds the Gottans of the way in which the Snake People held the Gottans as if they were cattle before the coming of Esom. This Civilisation – the Children of the Sun God – a collection of independent city states with a common culture, could be imagined as pseudo-Mythic Greeks crossed with Babylonians. Adventurous Civilised people enter Barbarian Valley as traders, missionaries, monster hunters, and as slavers.

Starting Level of the Characters
Player Characters start as young adults, out to make a name for themselves. They will be exceptional young adults, with generous character generation options ‘switched on’. The early time frame will progress rapidly (if appropriate) allowing the PCs to develop (both mechanically – in terms of skill %, and in terms of character) into notable people, a cut above the ordinary.

Types of Adventures Available
Adventures will typically be one or two sessions of play. Adventures can (and likely will) end in failure (often short of death). Success or failure will have consequences, so the PCs will shape Barbarian Valley through play. Longer adventures will emerge ‘organically’ as PCs pursue their goals and respond to events. In the first few ‘seasons’ (in the US television parlance) typical adventures might include.

1. Hunting for dangerous big game or monsters. Success on the hunt wins the hunter glory, and well as bringing the clan food and other resources.
2. Stealthy raids on rival tribes for plunder or ransom. Raids are an accepted, valorised part of Gottan culture, and do not necessarily involve fights to the death.
3. Ambushing the caravans of soft civilised merchants, or even the borderland settlements. This banditry is an extension of Gottan raiding culture, though different rules might apply to the treatment of captive foreigners.
4. Protecting merchants from raiders from of rival clans. At least one Gottan clan chief will want to cultivate an ongoing relationship with the Children of the Sun God, even if it means dishonouring the Ancestors. Bronze is that valuable.
5. Taking part in inter-tribal ‘war’. This would usually involve a series of skirmishes to determine access to hunting grounds, sacred sites, etc.
6. Exploring ruins dating back to the time of Esom (or earlier?), ruins of citadels constructed from vast stone blocks. The PCs might be looking for treasure, magic, or other sources of glory – both personal, and for the clan.
7. Resisting/thwarting the depredations of the foul Southern Sorcerer who has established his base is a lost city in the mountains. Several clans have been corrupted or enslaved, but he also has inhuman servants. It is unlikely that the PCs would be able to defeat the Sorcerer himself at this stage, but if they really wanted to try…
8. Interacting with Spirits – malevolent, neutral, or friendly – for the benefit of the clan. Or, perhaps, for the personal power of the PCs.
9. Explorations of new territories, primarily to claim hunting rights, but who knows what might be discovered.
10. Involvement in tribal intrigue, as prominent hunters vie for clan leadership, and chiefs eye the title of tribal King.

1. Rivals for glory in the same tribe. These rivalries are likely to be non-fatal, but could have serious, long-lasting consequences in the lives of the PCs.
2. Heroes of rival clans. These would represent a greater physical danger, but custom still largely avoids inter-clan rivalry degenerating into all-out blood baths.
3. Agents of the Sorcerer. These would include both open antagonists – renegade Gottans, foreign mercenaries, and sorcerous acolytes – and covert corruptors within the clans.
4. The Sorcerer himself, perhaps, even if he only casts a shadow over the valley.
5. Dangerous Spirits – amoral Nature Spirits, Ancestors with an interest in the material world, and foul Spirits of Death and Disease.
6. Predators and prey; Bears, Boars, Bison and Bigger Things, such as Mammoths and Dinosaurs…
7. Civilised adventurers and slavers – ignorant of custom, deliberately blasphemous, or outright hostile.
8. Priests of the Sun Gods, bringing their strange foreign religion and ideas about settled life to replace the ancient customs of the clans.
9. The Things in the Woods – Beastmen and worse…
10. Gottan lawbreakers. The PCs might have to take physical action, but adventures might also involve investigation, or even taking a part in clan decision making.

Potential Allies
Well… all of the above, I guess! Most of them, anyway. Even the Sorcerer, in extremis.

Important Cults/Organisations
1. The Ancestor Cults of the Barbarians
2. The Temple of the Sun God
3. The individual clans (and, at a level above, loosely affiliated tribes).
4. The Sorcerer’s ‘kingdom’

Campaign Themes
1. Winning glory and reputation among clans and tribes in Barbarian Valley.
2. Resisting/Accepting/Exploiting the encroachment of new ways and customs.

3. Encountering true evil in the form of the Sorcerer.

The influences on this prospective game should be fairly obvious...

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Didn’t we have a lovely time // the day we went to Mampang

A beautiful day, we had lunch on the way // And all for under a pound, you know

Actually, the PCs had lunch in the kitchens of the Fortress. Despite the quite frightful possibilities, Ho Lee’s adventures in evil cuisine passed off with disappointingly little consequence. The luck of the dice sometimes does fall the way of the PCs. And for under a pound? Now that would be a bargain, given the price gouging rip off merchants that pass themselves off as traders and innkeepers in the Shamutanti Hills.

How on Titan did the PCs get into Mampang? Well, the last we heard from the party they were about to try the 'Chewbacca Gambit'. In fact, I’m pretty sure that D, playing Ho Lee, did utter the line, ‘We’re fine, how are you?’ and, ‘Boring conversation anyway,’ during the three sessions it took the party to reach their fate deep in the Fortress. That said, my memory is sketchy these days – despite my ‘it were better in my day’ shtick, that’s probably the multiple concussions more than it is age.

The first session involved negotiating the three courtyards of the Fortress of Mampang. The first courtyard is mostly empty, with the first set of magical Throben doors requiring merely requiring a key. Easy peasy; the party searched the rooms around the gate, made mincemeat of some Dark Elves for no reward, but found the key nonetheless.

The second courtyard is a much more interesting place, filled with the kind of colourful encounters that are the essence of the early Fighting Fantasy books. Gambling guards, a pathetic beggar, a mysterious column, aggressive Red Eyes and treacherous Sightmasters. The PCs had been told by the guards on the main gate that they needed to go straight to Valignya, First Assistant to the Lord Treasurer of Mampang, to pay the tax on their ‘booty’. I’m not sure that Cramer would appreciate being described so…

Throughout this game the party never really acquired the ‘world sense’ required to adventure in Titan. Set a goal – whether it was cross Kakabad or find NPCX – and they would pursue it single-mindedly. That's probably a very good strategy when given a mission in the real world. Unfortunately for them, Titan is a *very* strange place. Dismissing a wretched beggar or a strange shop as unimportant with regard to the pursuit of goal might work in the logic of the real world, but on Titan (not least because of the legacy of the gamebook structure), YOU can never know what might be found pursuing those little diversions.

Death, quite possibly. As a legacy of the gamebook structure it is often the case that, on Titan, players must make decisions without sufficient information, and the decisions are therefore meaningless. Do YOU open the door? Do YOU go left or do YOU go right? Do YOU approach the beggar? In gamebooks it is often the case that acquiring the necessary information necessary is achieved by way of (repeated) failure. And I don’t care what you all say – in a game failure can be fun.

YOUR Adventure Ends Here. Roll up a new YOU. See my adventures in failure here.

That works... for a gamebook; as much as some of the ways to fail in a FF book are 'unfair', I am pretty confident that I would feel cheated if gamebooks were routinely 'won' on the first play. But then,when playing a gamebook there is just YOU, so playing again is simply a matter of grabbing a new sheet of paper, rolling four d6, and returning to section 1. But in a multiplayer tabletop RPG (for which you have assembled your friends in the face of the demands of real life) there can be only one attempt to recover the Crown of Kings, else the success or failure of the quest, in having no consequence, has no meaning. If there is one thing that the Arion Games version of Crown of Kings needs, it is a GM willing and able to saturate the adventure with the kind of information (clues, hints, foreshadowing, and the obligatory confessions extracted by torture) necessary for the players to make informed, meaningful decisions and avoid (though good play) the multitude of possible TPKs. I got better at this as we played, though I did swallow my principles and ‘rescue’ the party a few times, something that I would not have done in a living sandbox. But then my living sandbox would never involve the kind of deathraps with which the Archmage had peppered his Fortress.

Scan of picture, by John Blanche, borrowed from Fighting Fantasy Project, which, coincidentally has just finished its own playthrough of the the Sorcery! gamebook series.

First though - Valignya and the tax. Curiously, his room is found off the second courtyard beyond the chambers of a monster trainer. I redrew the map somewhat, to make it possible for the residents of Mampang to pay their dues without having to get past a murderous MUCALYTIC. Despite the utterly unhelpful monster trainer, the party made it to Valignya's room unmolested. Valignya was a fat man living in superficial opulence, with ornate fabrics and elaborate trinkets on every surface; the accumulation of tax paid in kind. He demanded a cut of the value of the 'prisoner', which the party paid, but the taxman then demanded the prisoner herself; he would either add Cramer to his retinue of slaves, or he could use her to enhance his credit with those who reside deeper in the Fortress. The party resisted, naturally enough, demanding the honour of turning her over to the master torturer in person. Valignya surreptitiously tried to poison the PCs, but failed (never underestimate high Luck scores). Shifting nervously, he decided to take the profit where he could find it, and demanded a 'door tax' if he was to give them the information they needed to pass the second set of Throben Doors and find Naggamanteh.


A GM should always change the names found in a published adventure if they are unpronounceable. Alara-whatnow? Few things are worse for immersion in a fantasy world than a GM who needs ten attempts to pronounce a word. Ahem...

But at least this was a magic word, not the mangling of an ordinary name that looked good when written down. And with that magic word, the second set of Throben Doors opened harmlessly and the party found themselves in the third (and final) courtyard of Mampang. From this courtyard the party enjoyed a diversion in the kitchens of the Fortress, before heading straight for the torture chamber. Opting not to open doors unnecessarily, they managed to avoid meeting the good BIRDMEN, the Samaritans of Schinn, and a crowd of bad Birdmen, loyal to the Archmage. They managed to avoid an amusing romp in a room full of mutants. Instead, confident that the goal that they had set themselves was, without question, the necessary next step in the adventure, they made straight for the torture chamber of Naggamenteh.

He looks bashful. So they bashed him in. Scanned image again borrowed from Fighting Fantasy Project, by John Blanche.

An OGRE - and an unusually ugly one, even by the standards of his species - Naggamenteh is not used to bargaining when he doesn't hold the whip hand. Literally. This encounter descended into a fight pretty quickly, but facing three hardened adventurers, the Ogre didn't stand a chance. Begging for his life, the party did as all good adventurers would do - they improvised, employing the material at hand. The material at hand was some of the most sophisticated torture equipment on the surface of Titan. They soon had one dead, mutilated Ogre and a warning that the magic that guards the third set of Throben Doors is not what it seems.

Next session: the party meet an obligatory Fighting Fantasy trader, avoid three deathtraps (just, well, kinda), before engaging in a most ludicrously futile fight.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Made in Britain 198X

More self-indulgent nostalgia, but given that's the veritable perpetual motion machine that drives my gaming... 

I was flipping through the Magnum Opus Press edition of Dragon Warriors the other day. It occurred to me that in my gaming collection there is quite the collection of fantasy gaming worlds created by British authors in the 1980s. My love of Titan is pretty evident, as is my soft spot for the Old World of Warhammer [Fantasy Role-Play]. But I’ve also got a fair bit of time for Legend (Dragon Warriors, Blood Sword) and Magnamund (Lone Wolf), and I’ve journeyed across both the Fabled Lands (okay, that’s really the 1990s) and Orb (Talisman of Death and Way of the Tiger).

By Samuel Fisher (found here)

A tremendous amount of my affection for these worlds is, obviously, nostalgia. Even my claim that these worlds are ripe for adventure (see my view on Titan, here) is the product of an inescapable circularity; these worlds shaped my view of what fantastic adventures should involve.

But I can’t be the only one, judging by the fact ALL of these game worlds are in-print: 
  • Oh, and the Warhammer Old World… It never went away, you know - what with the monster that is Warhammer Fantasy Battle. But for a slightly less RAGH! AWESUM! take on the setting, near on the full line of WFRP2e pdfs are still available (with some books available as print-on-demand).

I’d say that I didn’t know what bound these together – apart from time, geography, and childhood – but there are a number of names that recur, both authors and artists, through this list, playing a game of seven degrees of Dave Morris (or Russ Nicholson).

Maybe next week I’ll write about how I like something a little more contemporary (or, at the very least, about the fact that I can't stand old gaming products X,Y, and Z). But then the point of this is that these aren't (just) old gaming products. They're in print, with new stuff being published - officially and by fans. And anyway, first I’ll have to tell you about what happened on our day-trip to Mampang.