Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Five Hottest Clickbait Books of the Hill Cantons

I love the hell out of books and naturally my bibliomania pushes its way into the campaign. In fact my notebooks are sloppy with this kind of in-game artifacts and self-indulgence. Five best-selling examples from the campaign year 40214...

A Briefe and True Report of the Divers Land and Peoples of the Feral Shore
Author: Alojiza nad Hromon
Physical Appearance: Crimson pelgrane hide cover with a gorgeously-illuminated interior rendered in the ink of bisytsia (she-devil) tears. Pressed paper (disappointingly cheap and thin). 86 pages
Cost: 149 gold suns and 99 copper sags

The third best-selling release this year from the Guild of Potboilers, Ghost Writers, Scribes and Jakes Farmers. The book is “selling in the tens,” an astounding commercial hat trick for the guild, and relates the author's experiences having scandalously dressed in simple cloth and cut her exquisite curly main into a bob to pass as a common laborer in the little-known Kezmaroki crown colony called Karldeset (or King's Ten). Strangely the book is written in the form of random tables.

Choice Excerpts:
“5. The colonists of the Shore differ much in apparel from the Kežmarokis although little in indolence and deceitfulness.”

“38. The Lords of the Shore are coarse and low. Indeed they wallow in their base natures, self-describing their Company as the Nefarious Nine. Colony discipline is handled quite-literally by a clown who fear of curbs the excess of vice commonly found in an assemblage of drink-besotted laboring men. And the rest of the bizarre Nine number among them an oily grifter, a disturbing doctor of unknown academic acumen, a full-toothed handsome but shady royal pretender, a foppishly-attired cave dwarf, a vinegar-smelling half-giant, a drunken alien priest, and a clockwork midget.”

“59. It is an error to call those on the Shore heretically ultra-orthodox (as is the common way with Kežiamoors), the folk are true pagans raising a vast new temple—in between two villages inhabited only by monkeys--to the vanity of the dead many-faced gods of the Old Pahr.”

A Brief Relation of the World-Dungeon Unitary, As it Was Delivered to the Folk of Marlinko
Author: Son of Mulmak
Physical Appearance: Folded, continuous codex with pressed paper and printed by a cutting-edge “printing press”. 16 pages.
Cost: 20 gold suns
A provocative new pamphlet rocking the excitable (and riot-prone) academic world of the Cantons. The booklet theorizes that mirroring the surface of the world is a vast subterranean network of dank chambers, byzantine tunnels, tomb complexes, fiendish traps, treasure houses, and creatures fell.

That said “dungeons” combining those elements exist is a matter of consensus among scholars, but this new doctrine of pandungeonism that claims that all said murderholes are but the surface manifestations of a single world-dungeon has already drawn the ire of the ecumenical council of the Temple who have deemed it and its anonymous author “borderline heretical.”

The Altricious Cycle of Supernal Japery
Author: Third-Commander Jaasher, translation by Lady Szara
Physical Appearance: Compressed fingernail-clipping cover with scraped donkey-skin parchment.
48 pages
Cost: 250 gold suns
A cruelly satirical book of poetry written in Classical Eld Iambic pentameter now translated into the vernacular of Low Hyperborean by the famous society lady (and rumored strigoi) Lady Szara. The translated copy is subtitled “As Seen in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes” and sports a promotional blurb from Sir Eld: “The underdeveloped hairless ape mind cannot wrap its feeble brain capacity around the sheer joy and wonder of Jaasher's work. Still buy it if you must.”
Five Shades of Azure
Author: Captain Balazas
Physical Appearance: Sparse but functional leather-bound volume with standard vellum. Full-color erotic plates inside. 128 pages.
Cost: 300 gold suns
Choice Excerpt: “Contrary to the prejudices of the Rock [High Kežmarok] our Pahr subjects here on the Shore are not quite the uncouth louts they are made out to be in polite society. To the contrary, I have had many a pleasing—if such a word can be used when suffering the pains of court exile—moment here at Vygrot in their hearty bearded company laughing at their colorful tall tales, seeing the blush of the red-cheeked village maidens in their white linen and floral bodices...[long, racy and embarrassingly clumsy digression].

Lost Vlko and Romuilak the Lupine
Author: Unattributed but commissioned by “He Whose Howls Echo Among the Ages, His Fecundity, Tazrun, the Illuminous and Mighty Seneschal of All the Southlands.”
Physical Appearance: Embroidered leather cover strung with cat-gut and smelling vaguely of wet dog. 64 pages
Cost: 150 gold suns
Choice Excerpt: “For a people who had their origin in the horse-stunk nomad hordes of the Sea of Grass the Pahr people have been remarkably at home in the scrubby hills, rounded peaks, high valleys and crags of Zem. While many of the hill clans have long since been domesticated into the (slightly) more sedate lives of Overkingdom cantons, tales of the “lost kingdoms”, Old Pahr petty mountain kingdoms that dropped from the historical record centuries ago--and into the popular imagination of this day.

One such tale that looms large in the so-called Southern Cycle, that great collection of folk ballads and tall tales of how the Pahr came to migrate, conquer and be conquered in the post-Hyperborean era, is that of Vlko and its hirsute, half-wild founder, Romuilak the Lupine. Many a man of science would like to believe that Vlko still exists, nestled high in the Cerny mountains, with a people prospering by the simple, bellicose virtues of the Old Pahr hidden and secure from modernity.”

Also Rans
A Modest Survey of History High and Low in the Overkingdom's Late Modernity by the scandal-ridden Cantontonal historian Jiri Paveliak (whose elaborate backstory bedazzles all). 

The World-Dialectic: Is it For You? by Jarek the Nagsman.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Sandboxes Growing Into Special Snowflakes

The debate around Special Snowflakery has taken some interesting turns. For one Courtney counterposes what I think is an over-narrow definition of the Special Snowflake setting (and lumps in the heavy-handed/railroady elements that I also dislike) to what he may think is my over-broad and likely murky definition. The principled disagreement is all fine and good, I learned things and got a chance to clarify my own thoughts. 

Strangely, a number of people both on these posts and on Google Plus seem to raise counter-points that I not only agree with whole-heartedly but have been central features of the six-plus years of the Hill Cantons campaign—and a re-occuring thread in the posts here about that play. Small is beautiful, less is more, and that play should drive what is vital in a setting world are all things that I have written about—not as abstract principle—but as part of my own observations about where the players and I where taking the sandbox campaign over the years.

Further the discussion made me think hard about whether or not my campaign world was itself a special snowflake. I mean sure in many ways its a very traditional D&D game: the mechanical baseline is a mostly untouched B/X clone and most all play revolves around micro-site underground exploration. All roads lead to the dungeon is a running and not inaccurate (and terribly funny) joke in the Hill Cantons.

But it has had any number of grand experiments (pointcrawls of all stripes, domain-level play, stupid player classes, etc) and it has grown up with a steady accumulation of highly personalized setting details—up to and including the hubris of actually inflicting that hubris on the world through publishing the Slumbering Ursine Dunes. It's hard to not admit in the end that it has very much evolved into the most special of snowflakes.

How a simple barebones sandbox grows into that whole other thing is an interesting open question and one tied to the zig-zagging actions of the players. Tazrun, a PC thief, dies and the party wants to raise him from the dead so they decide to break out of what has been the geographic delimited campaign zone and go to the big city. Then that big city, half-ruined Kezmarok in my case, becomes a whole new arena for the players—and then itself gets dropped for a wilderness clearing new phase. The world and its details start accreting.

I would hazard a guess that it mirrors other folks sure but steady building up from the ground floor (and yes this is your place to chime in about that experience).

Obviously I speak best to my own experience. Fortunately for me that experience rather well documented over the years here. Doubling back to my indexing project I can kill two birds with one stone.

The Road to Snowflake Perdition
I am tempted to skip right over this as vaguely embarrassing but it all started here, my very first post for a blog that was intended just to be a campaign clearinghouse. The campaign was nothing but a few terse setting dress lines. A skippable but relevant post. 

Five sessions and a month in and I am already pushing at the limits of what I had intended to be a plotless West Marches. Still I apologize for worldbuilding impulses. The links here are wonderful, some classics in the thinking of sandbox campaigning in neo-old school circles of the time.

I try to have my West Marches cake and other quasi-plotted elements too by introducing hare-brained and baroque mechanics to keep me supposedly grounded. Some ideas I have kept with me, like the general dynamic of creating just-in-time mystery but most dropped.

Musing on the campaign “stages of evolution” and wondering if it is part of a generalized pattern for all long-running sandbox campaigns. The comments are interesting (and a shame that the Google Plus side vibrant discussion is lost to the ether.)

Kicks off a series of articles about Top Secret networks and character-based sandboxes. The attempts to do this as part of a espionage part of the campaign were not found to be all that fun by several players (and it took the campaign too much away from site exploration for my own tastes) so it was quietly killed in the night.

I finally recognize that the WM like features of the campaign are long abandoned and wonder why the many other “West Marches” have disappeared.

One of my favorite posts, I evoke the final season of Lost and a high-falutin' literary concept to return to talking about how mystery and worldbuilding are evolving in the campaign.

Taking a cue from Morrowind I talk about how to introduce info dump as an optional experience. (Note I have been way too overwhelmed to do anything like this over the last year of the campaign).

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Quick Addendum to Special Snowflakery

Somewhere in the middle of yesterday's discussion—and work day--I got a chance to sneak in two hours of cross-continental anarchy and laughter in Harald Wagener's Sylvan Realms online game.

While the game was straight-up, by-the-book Labyrinth Lord, it doesn't have a single standard player class. Instead we had a short-list array of thematically-linked classes: Forest Gnome, Witch, Warden, Enchantress and War Bear (do you have to even ask what I ended up playing). Each class had unique quirks and abilities. Marcy the witch (which subbed in for our first War Bear casualty) had her potions, Gnorman the gnome his weasel animal friend (which for a round my slain War Bear's spirit managed to possess).

Our opening information was pretty bare bones, a list of terse bullet points. But it like it instantly had a good deal of off-vanilla flavor a lot of nagging little mysteries: no human settlements, no real civilization other than the lost elves. Just a 30 mile by 50 mile section of wooded mythical wilderness, geographically isolated from whatever the hell the larger world is.

In other words, despite lacking an elaborate setting elaboration, it was most definitely a special snowflake setting. It was unique, interesting and in its hardwiring instantly signaled a particular flavor: dark fairy tale.

For see you don't have to have—and indeed it probably works better to not have at the get go—tome-like setting description, long sweeping historical accounts, continent-wide maps, etc. It can grow up bottom up from a simple, but personalized base through play and work outward to whatever it wants to be.

You don't need it to be achingly weird or be another one-up in the Gonzo arms race that FLAILSNAILS at times seemed to be in the Google Plus scene. You can even take rather staid and familiar elements like that of enchanted woods and fairy tale creatures—and then toss in a 30-foot blind essence-dreaming freakzoid from the Chtonic Codex and hit all my sweet spots (while scaring the piss out of me).

Tomorrow I defend the comfort food joys of Vanilla D&D fantasy for balance.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Rehabilitating the Special Snowflake Setting

Tool around an old school/OSR forum, con or blog at the tail end of the last decade and one wouldn't have to go far before hearing the dismissive phrase “special snowflake” aimed with deadly force at fantasy worldbuilding or character backstory.

To be sure there seemed to be a good deal of antipathy to the idea of creating detailed, minutely fleshed-out imaginary worlds. A bit of defiance even: “no one cares about what color hats the burghers of Madeuptown wear or the burial customs of Whatthefuckistan.”

I understood and agreed to some extent with much of the impulse. Decades of Tolkien pastiche, awkwardly-executed exotic setting and paid-by-the-word splat had left behind reams of setting whoha. It was--and is--too much this steady accumulation of bad and failed imaginary worlds.

The ultra-terse settings of the Wilderlands and Greyhawk folio were often cited as counter-examples. This trend ran along for a while and culminates with the creations of (to borrow and madly mangle a phrase) "nega-settings" like the Isle of the Unknown. And then without much acknowledgment the phrase and the sentiment starts disappearing over the past few years.

I say good fucking riddance.

See a part of me always bristled at the notion. For I genuinely like robust worldbuilding. You can actually make me care about color those damned hats are or whether or not those sad Whatthefuckistans swaddle their dead or not.

And you don't need a random chart or oblique mechanical hiding of it, that can help, but really you just have to make it good. It needs to reach through the page or better the gaming table and grab me.

Look I dig the gamey aspects of well-aged D&D and its brethren: the micro-exploration and tactical choice of the dungeon, the emergent story (if any), the boardgame-like rise of zero-to-hero etc. But I also just want the rush and thrill of pretending to walk the streets of a deeply imagined city.

Concretely my favorite experiences as a player (and what a real joy having had a chance to play in as many divergent campaigns as I have thanks to the Google Plus boom) have all entailed at least a few sessions of “off-topic” just schlepping around interacting with other GM's worlds.

Meandering through dark alleys and salons in Jeremy Duncan's baroque Galbaruc only to have my scumbag/sailor character's spine get ripped out in a street boxing match. Taking a day job as a corrupt rookie cop in the Sword-and-Planet meets He-Man wildness of Robert Parker's Savage World of Krul. Hustling at a wine bar with my Apollo-the-demonic-snakegod-worshiping priest in the ancient astronauts meets ziggurated (not a word) ancient Mesopotamia of Evan Elkin's Uz (really he puts this kind of robustly world out every few months). Plying a magic caravan in the refracted real world of Michael Moscrip's Anglia.

And as a reader I want more of the compelling visuals, imaginative reach and clever little nooks of Trey Causey's fantasy 1930s Weird Adventures and the sweet-spot 70s space opera of his soon-to-be-released Strange Stars. More of the grotty and decidedly strange mythic underworld of Jason Sholtis’s Operation Unfathomable (the Hydra Collective's next big project yes, but I am a passionate fan). More of the science-fantasy strange gods and divergent magic of Gus L's clerics in HMS Apollyon

And more newer things like the pithy, baked-into-a-game charm of Chris McDowall's Into the Odd or the pointcrawled epic weirdness of Paolo Greco's underworld in the Chthonic Codex (along with Zak's Red and Pleasant Land the two most physically gorgeous game-related literature I have the pleasure of owning). The list goes just on and on looking through my bookmarked pages.

So bring that special snowflake. More please.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Misty Isles of the Eld Take Shape

With Fever-Dreaming Marlinko mostly done and in the rewrite phase, I have moved over to the next of the big stretch goal adventures, the Misty Isles of the Eld.

Where as the Dunes was mythic wilderness presented with the elements of an outdoors pointcrawl, the Isles are shaping up to be an extra-planar (in this case the alkaline wastes of the Cold Hell/Anti-Cantons) adventure wrapped up in an 18-point pointcrawl spread over three islands. Pinning it all down are two dungeon sites (the body-horror Vat Complex and the stage-facade Pagoda City) that are larger and weirder then the two tent-pole dungeons of the Dunes.

My writing enthusiasm level has gone from “tired but still feeling it” to “amped up, get out of my way motherf*cka.” What's helped is seeing the art develop on both projects: Jeremy Duncan's inspired grottiness (really a perfect fit for Marlinko) and Luka Rejec's irrepressibly charming and darkly funny work. Seriously on the Hydra team page I will no sooner finish praising a piece only to find another piece posted. And I find myself answering Luka's questions about "do the Isles have such and such?" with “they do now.”

Again with the showing and not telling...





Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Four Contradas of Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

I've been really feeling the wind in my hoary-cliched sails this week.Not only did it feel good to get the Slumbering Ursine Dunes pdf out early to backers last week (and on sale at DriveThru), it felt even better to put the last touches on the draft of the Marlinko city adventure that was the first stretch goal of the Kickstarter. We had originally imagined it to be a smallish thing 20 pages as opposed to the 66 pages of the Dunes but it's already taken on a life of its own and is hitting around 40 digest-sized pages already.

What's invigorating about the writing I am finding is that in a long sandbox campaign you end up with a lot of dead ends or partially-developed material when the party veers off one way or the other. Having the excuse and motivation to really dig down into half-baked, left-behind ideas and places thus feels like a real treat. I never got a chance to really dig into the city adventures and high weirdness of Marlinko after it slipped from its place of prominence as the party's home-base roughly two and change years ago. And now I do. 

Anywho here's a sample of some of what the new material is looking like...

The Four Contradas of Marlinko
Marlinko was built around the squat, black bulk of the Tomb of the Town Gods, a structure that predates the rest of the city by an interminably long period of time. The ominous edifice sitting in its wide, cobblestoned, circular plaza has retained its position as the dead center of the city. Four wide avenues radiate from it at the cardinal points and divide the city into four contradas or quarters.

The four contradas do not reflect merely a geographic or class division but have deeply embedded cultural and psycho-geographical lives of their own. Each contrada organizes its own festivals, keeps its own histories, and pays fearful homage to the abstract-featured idol of its own unique “town god.”

Each contrada also maintains its own contrada hall (a large, well-maintained, ceremonial gathering place) where it keeps a collection of its own unique banners, ceremonial regalia, historical tapestries, mummies, and most importantly, the various trophies it has won in the single most important bi-annual event: the great chariot race that headlines the Ebon Horse Fair. Throughout the year, contrada trainers keep their chosen condemned convict-jockey revved up and ready for the Black Race. It is well that they do for the losers are hanged and the winner takes a trophy and his freedom!

Včelař (Sullen Apiarian) Contrada
The Northwestern Quarter with its great yellow-and-black beehive and mopey deodand emblazoned banner contains the greatest concentration of affluence and easy living in the city. The great painted-plastered town-manses of the wealthy dominate the coveted plaza and avenue fronts in this part of town.

Despite its wealthy cast, the contrada has a deeply-ingrained inferiority complex--due in large part to its century-long losing streak in the Black Race. The loss has become a self-fulfilling prophesy in recent years with the rash of suicides of convicts who consider being drafted into service as a SA jockey to be a death sentence anyway. Roving gangs of youths from respected families are quick to draw rapiers against any slight as to compensate for the wound to their civic honor.

Anfolf
Sullen Apiarian “worships” or placates Anfolf, the vaguely bee-headed town god said to be a rainmaker and bringer of both wealth and anxiety. When Anfolf in his glowing golden nimbus walked the streets of early Marlinko impressing the bearded Pahr immigrants just getting used to lives not spent on horseback, He was said to literally shower them with the sweetest of honey--and the swiftest of kicks...

Though it shouts “conspicuous consumption,” the yellow-limestone and quartz facade of the Sullen Apiarian contrada hall with its amber and lapis lazuli-encrusted honeycombed frescoes stands handsomely over its small, tight square. The contrada society itself is a broad one with a large burgeoning hierarchy of ceremonial officers arrayed in 27 ranks. Incongruously the higher, more labor-intensive (and not un-powerful) positions are held traditionally by the less affluent members of the contrada (or “temporally-embarrassed grandees” as they like to call themselves).

From here each contrada has a key focusing on the interesting and adventurable sites. Each ward description also has their own unique encounter and random building charts—many of which have triggers and hooks embedded in the escalating random event system of the Chaos Index. Encounter charts that have entries like this...
Maus. A wild-eyed  paranoid dressed in the long-robed, woolen hat finery of a rustic boyar. Maus rants and raves at the characters about the “Axis of Tindrthurn,” a secret postal and matchmaking service that he claims is trying to kill him. If the Chaos Level is 6 and over he is correct on all counts.