Monday, April 13, 2015

Campaign News Porting to the Blog

For going on four years now I have been writing and posting the supposedly-weekly and increasingly idiosyncratic news report for players and spectators of the eponymous campaign to the Hill Cantons google plus page. Having written about how to use campaign news as continuity glue for a long-running campaign and having the blog slip way down the list of my hobby-writing priorities--and thus in need of some love—the news reports will now be appearing right here in the future.

And now the News...
Hinek the Aft, notable local lunatic and mariner, has been recounting wild tales of a supposed landing in the fabled Misty Isles by his patroness and captain the so-called Daughter of Ondrej. Bizarrely his first day of yarn-spinning in the Marlinko bathhouses told of a stark, dead land with “ridges made from the corpses of massive grubs”-- a story quite at odds with the popular conception of the eternally fog-shrouded islands as a bucolic paradise. Even stranger is his apparent self-beating over the night and subsequent retelling of the story in a broken monotone: “The...Misty Isles...are...a...wondrous place filled...with...laughter and light...and that I have...never visited nor can I speak with assurance..from a first-hand account.”

The recent opening of the gaily-painted, if disturbingly and atavistically pagan High Temple to All-Pahr Gods has brought in a influx of curious tourists and dour, bearded faithful to the Feral Shore. When clicked on, the colony steward, Okko, claims that nearly 900 gold suns have been brought in from sales of bric brac such as Svat the Four-Faced carved wooden posts, Marzana garlic wreaths and Radagast painted beer steins in the first two weeks alone.

But income from schlock is not the only thing the new Temple has brought in, the dedication has also brought along two new inhabitants both claiming to have been brought by visions sent from dying Pahr godlings.

The first of which is the strangest, a bass-toned skald with the head of an enormous red rooster by the name of Vyvod. Though an odd sight, residents of Karldeset and the Domovoy villages, have warmed to his deep, catchy, self-valorizing ballads and quite often one can hear on the winds the opening verses from his most popular tune:
Little Pavol and Vyvod
strutt-ing through the for-est
Never evere dreamin' that a schemin' deodand and his posse
Was a-watchin' them an' gatherin' around.”

The rooster bard's appearance was followed the next day by a grizzled, long-bearded, wearing the antiquated heavy armor that scholars call chainmail and looking to all the world like he stepped out of a Pahr-themed historical tapestry. Captain Slavomil as he calls himself is said to have been touched in the head by a command from the long-thought dead god Velesh to throw his axe into a local lake, seek the blessing of the Lords of the Shore and begin to organize a warband for a long journey around the southlands cape to conquer the City of Porcelain, a distant, fabled, demon-haunted city of great delicacy.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Space Cantons Mini-Campaign III

With Fever Dreaming Marlinko (the first Dunes stretch goal adventure) going through proofing, Anthony's Cali Dunes manuscript going through its first round of comments/edits (so excited), and the Misty Isles of the Eld getting all playtested and written, I finally feel like I have some mental room to juggle some other things.

And those things as a palate cleanser point away from D&D and toward my old love Classic Traveller. The following is one of the hooks from my new Tuesday mini-campaign shared here because I hear sharing is caring. (My past Traveller house rules, variants and mini-campaign whoha can be seen here.)

The Adventure Hook
The Cerny Vlk, the subsector-famous Boloerium (a paraterraformed asteroid-vessel used for intra-system travel, see library data below) dedicated to preserving pre-uplift wolf stock--and manned by a cooperative of self-styled “lycanthropes”--has gone “dark” according to months-old reports from The Grange. That wild and wooly system of micro-republics hunkered down on trojan-point planetoids has produced a not-too surprisingly conflicting range of hotly-contested salvage claims. Putting hard credits where their vacc-suited comm-boxes are, the system's two fiestiest polities, Cockyagne and Hayduke, are reportedly both offering 500,000 CR bounties to a crack “salvage and rescue team” for in-hand repossession of the outbound ship.
Cylinder Interior (click to enlarge).
Scale is 250 meters per hex. Map "north" and "south" wrap around. 
Library Data: the Cerny Vlk Boloerium
Like most boloeriums, the CV is dual-roled as asteroid space habitats and intra-space vessel. The CV was constructed under the auspices of the Vlk Foundation, a philo-bolo (collective doubling as a non-profit charity), six decades ago for service in the Grange system. The foundation's terse bullet-pointed mission statement blandly refers to “pre-uplift conservation” and “maintaining the green fire of wild abandon that burns away the blandishments and corruption of hypermediated civilized life” as the Foundation's guiding vision.

The habitat's interior is a hollow cylinder 6 kilometers long with the long sides sloping upwards precipitously for a “height” of 1 kilometer.

The central space is dominated by an artificial lighting and weather system that simulates cloud cover that cycles randomly between a fine rain, partly cloudy and partly sunny conditions on a twice “daily” cycle. The ten hour “night period” is experienced universally across the interior when the “sunline” lighting is reduced to a low blue-gelled hue. Internal temperatures are set to range between a low of 45-60 and a high of 55-75 Fahrenheit.

Internally the CV underwent an extension biome renovation two decades ago, the old patchwork of 114 micro-biomes was replaced with two larger more continuous biome zones (and two sub-zones) to reflect a change in program direction by the Vlk Foundation:
1. Tundra. A large rolling plains like space punctuated by moody dark grey spray-foam rock formations. Contains xeno-caribou and giant jackalope herds for game.
2. Tanglewald. A dense twin-canopy bramble forest that is in fact a single rhizomatic macro-organism.
3. The Boreal Forest. Massive black-trunked conifers and large ferns cloned from ancient primordal amber tower over this micro-biome. Houses the White Lodge, a “Future-Past Age” spiritual healing center complete with enema kivas and healing lasers.
4. The Lake. Freshwater lake complete with paddle boat rental, tea pavillion and prediluvian megafauna.

The habitat in perpetual spin (assisted by the Forward Unit) creating internal gravity set at 0.8.

The CV is also set on a perpetual intra-system vector between the grange points hitting all of the major asteroids on the route in a slow annual route. It is impossible under the current Cantonment level of advancement (TL 13) to build power plants and jump systems large enough to be used on a Boloerium.

External structures include:
1. The Forward Unit or “Spinner”. The original complex set up at the aft of the asteroid to excavate the asteroid and importantly to to create its original spin with chemical propulsion systems (and which today serve as an emergency or correction system).
2. The Main Gate. An exterior complex of docking gates, observation decks, warehouses, schlocky gift shops and elevators to the interior.

3. The Pleasure Dome. A domed space to use “party as a verb.” Includes a small personal airlock and all the space mollusk tripdust one can hope for. Defenestrations are purely optional.  

Friday, March 27, 2015

Derailing Castle Amber

A couple days ago I had a strangely-urgent request from a two (and a half) year-old to read the Erol Otus-covered X2 Castle Amber (alternately titled now “The Giant Crashes the Castle”). When you get such a request only a douche doesn't comply and I duly read out the first three pages in High Children Books Narrator Voice.

While chuckle-making in itself it did give me an opportunity to reread that old favorite. I distinctly remember Castle Amber being the module that I enjoyed running over any other adventure TSR produced back then. Did it still merit top billing in my brain?

For sure I had no idea who Clark Ashton Smith was at the time (and it took me a full 25 years later to get acquainted with and dig his writing), but the Averoigne mini-setting folded up inside resonated with me in a way other TSR setting whoha didn't at that time. Growing up as a history fanatic, a France-like place circa 1100-1350 AD had a cultural reference point that made it easier to picture mentally.

Further because of that resonance, the gothic horror/weird fantasy elements of Clark Ashton Smith (not that I could have put my finger on it) just seemed sharper and more fantastic. That you would have pagans roaming the woods for human sacrifices or a blood-red comet that would induce an abbot to transform into hazy-formed beast struck me as more fantastic and terrifying than clearing a dungeon of humanoids in the Pomarj.

Restless soul that I am I put together a set of things I would do to hack, spindle and otherwise mutilate the module to fit my own play style and prejudices. In other words “gussing it up” a la Gus L's wonderful series of reviews and derailings of the old B-series modules.
Current me hates the railroady overarching conceit of the adventure that you are trapped inside the castle. Even less particular early teen me got bored with too many sessions trapped away from the main campaign area and put in some handwavy, deus ex machina gates at the end of each session.

Change one would be to simply remove the lethal sorcerous mist that clings around the chateau. What the adventure (dubiously) loses with the dramatic tension of the players having to scramble to release the curse on Stephen Amber (who is trapped inside his tomb) and escape the chateau, it gains with expanding the choices for approaching it as a site-based adventure.

Secondly, I wouldn't ditch freeing Stephen Amber as a potential framing quest--just replace the stick with a carrot. The trapped mage showers the party with big ticket value jewelry and magic items anyway, perhaps just have him appear as an apparition when the party finds the “clues” scroll (hidden in three spots) or some other trigger and promise the party cash on the drum for getting him out of his jam. The clues themselves give a nice framing quest for exploring Averoigne complete with some red herring so retain that.

(And while you are at, now that the party can retreat and rest outside like in a typical sandbox campaign, ditch that heavy-handed freebie bit in which Stephan magically protects the party inside from all harm when they rest.)
Click to Enlarge
Chokepoints, Sideloops and Non-Linearity
At first glance the design of the “dungeon” looked very linear and dull to current me (you can see a copy of the map here). The adventure starts from a single point the entrance to the West wing and has a single hallway with side chambers.

Interestingly though some closer spatial analysis (see above) reveals it to be a more interesting space with slightly wider exploration choices (though one still a little marred by the railroaded single entrance and funneled exploration). Each wing (Moldvay suggests that each section is designed for a single session's worth of exploration) is chokepointed but all seem to have a few side-loops. The dungeon itself is relatively small but is nicely non-linear with two entrances from separate wings (the Chapel and East Wing) and two compact but internally non-linear side-sections.

While theoretically non-linear, the extreme lethality of stepping off the single path in the central Indoor Forest creates too much funnel for my taste. I would ratchet back or eliminate some of the thorn walls, pits and encounters. Let the players wander right into that Wild Hunt that breaks the hill open on there own.

Removing the railroad above really heightens the non-linear approach by eliminating the single entrance and instantly gives three easily-approachable front entrances to the West Wing, Indoor Forest, and East Wing (see the illustration) and numerous potential entrances through the numerous large-paned windows (though I would add some kind of challenge or obstacle to doing so like the windows being only breakable or high of the ground as the stairs up to the porticos suggest). Adding that front door entrance to the Indoor Forest gives players even more options.
Enlarge me
Replace the Hex Map
The hex map of Averoigne is functional and fine though it seems pointless to have it be at such a large scale (12 whopping miles per hex giving long travel periods between the sites). The hexes are superfluous anyway as the sites are teased and the exploration presumed to be goal oriented in searching for the four quest items to open the gate to Stephen Amber's tomb (and thus less about meticulous 360 degree exploration).

Tim Kirk's map (above) is such a beauty I would just go ahead and swap it out for the module map, maybe adding a simple pointcrawl diagram to keep track of the players' positions.

Kingdom of the Ghouls
One of my favorite bits in the module is Room 56 which appears at first glance to just be a boring old pit with some ghouls guarding it. The terse room description reveals it to be in fact a vast labyrinth and entrance to an entire land of ghouls (which naturally you had to develop on your own). I continue to eat up those kinds of challenges.

Fitting the faux-France angle here why not just take the fantastic sprawling maps and setting décor of the actual Paris Catacombs. Further make it an interactable place with interesting NPCs, hooks and internal tensions by reskinning the Dead Nations from Planescape Torment wholecloth.

Amp up the CAS
Rereading the module got me to also reread a few choices stories from CAS's Averoigne cycle. While Moldvay does a bang up job of adapting elements from the stories to a game context, I certainly felt that taking up his suggestion to expand the sites with unused elements from the stories was a good and noble effort. There is some weird fantasy gold missing such as the grotesque Mother of Toads in Les Hiboux, the haunted castle Fausseflammes, vampire lair etc that just cry out for someone with time on their hands to expand (cough, cough not me).

What would your Castle Amber look like?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Hill Cantons Compendium II Released

After half an eternity (in internet gaming circles time) the Hill Cantons Compendium has been revised and extended. You can Pay Whatever the Hell You Want for the PDF right here on DriveThru.

Gone thanks to Mike Davison's able layout hand is the clumsy (I would like to think charmingly amateur, but who am I fooling) layout and unused house rule sections. Expanded (almost doubled) are the number of dumb/brilliant player classes and I even threw several pages of special snowflake information about the Hill Cantons proper.

What you will find inside:
  • Nine variant old school fantasy (and Labyrinth Lord)-compatible player classes: the Mountebank, Chaos Monk, Robo-Dwarf, Feral Dwarf, White Wizard, Half-Ogre, Black “Halflings”, Pantless Barbarian and, of course, the War Bear.
  • Character background mini-game/alternative generator with quick random equipment charts.
  • Zero-level character generation and play rules.
  • Variant rules for simple attribute checks.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Dunes Stretch Adventures Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

The holiday period was naturally a bit of a bear (pun not intended) for the Slumbering Ursine Dunes production crew. While we got the main adventure out before deadline for the PDF and just on deadline for the print, I spent an ungodly amount of time troubleshooting Print-on-Demand issues with Lulu and DriveThru.

January was slower than anticipated but we made progress, so fortunately this isn't leading up to a slew of the usual Kickstarter excuses and nervous shuffling. In fact I feel rather proud of the fact that we have pushed the stretch adventures up from small 20-page mini-adventure affairs to four separate full-length adventures—Fever Dreaming Marlinko, The Misty Isles of the Eld, Anthony's California Dunes and What Ho, Frog Demons-- that will be close or as long as the main adventure. (All four will also be available in both PDF and print form on DriveThru.)

Which all leads up to the actual point of this post. Each adventure is developing a highly-distinct look with a single artist devoted to each. I've found myself getting caught in a “dialectic” in which I see these magnificent pieces and get inspired to do more writing—Luka's illustrations spawning several new additions to my weighty bestiary section in the Misty Isles already.

Similarly seeing some finished work by Jeremy Duncan (who as a player in the campaign made a number of character sketches that will forever be what I see in my mind's eye) for Marlinko. This grotty piece shows the sparagmos rite in the catacombs of the bizarre alien cult Church of the Blood Jesus. So lovely.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Ursine Dunes Pointcrawl Map Download and Review Round-Up

One thing I have greatly appreciated from the Slumbering Ursine Dunes project has been the chance to grow as a writer. Nothing helps more than honest critical assessment and fortunately I've been receiving much to think about how to up my game from thoughtful participants in our milieu.

Brendan S for one in his thoughtful review raises some challenges about how to present adventures for better use in the heat, smoke and noise of the table. We've been talking a good deal about that at the Hydra meetings and we are trying to rise to that challenge. 

The first and easiest step is providing a full-size download of the cramped A5-size pointcrawl map (and this may have broader interest to folks who haven't bought the mini-sandbox). You can find a letter-sized PDF as a download right here.

We are also producing a "dungeon pamphlet" as a separate download that will organize the whole adventure into its gameable at-the-table elements. That piece will go out to backers for free. 

Also while we are at here are some of the other fine reviews of SUD: