Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Rear View Mirror

I have been watching—from my woe-is-me sick bed—my blog roll steadily filling up with my blogging comrades' retrospectives for the year. Having ended the year much less of a contrarian than I started, I'm jumping on that horse.

2011 was the year of riding the smilidon here at the Hill Cantons. I could regal you with page view bar charts or some other tedious piece of bragging rights, but I would hazard a guess that you care even less about that than I do (which is little, really).

Like the games we love it's more about the road--the exploration and the camarderie along the way--than what lies at the end of it, the silly fleeting gratification of accumulating readers quantatively. In that way it's been a highly successful year. For me it's mostly been about driving down on the these arcing themes and game ideas, the little ideas that nag. And playing of course, lots of that.

Looking back here the theme arcs that I felt best about in the year:
This was the year that I loosened up on my long-standing revulsion against that kind of preening self-indulgent stule of the age—you know the one that has cranked up memoirs and tell-alls to a major section of the dead tree industry in the last decade. Writing more about my own deeper connections to the game helped me develop a stronger writer's voice—and let me talk about a surprising range of broader themes and how they relate back to the game.

I wrote about my father, and how the Vietnam War just might have something to do with the phrase “fantasy fucking Vietnam”. About my grandfather's storytelling and the oral art ofgame-mastering. About the otherworldly ruined pile of a house I lived in for a time when I started playing as a lad. About the ranch we would hole up in during college days in Conan Country.

About how  our religious worldviews can be a distant mirror to those we have in our fantasy world. And about the deep sense of place that I (and apparently the rest of you) associate with our campaign worlds.

In 2011 the blog remained a place that didn't just endlessly editorialize about games—and please sweet Crom, I pray for a general reduction in Opinion Only content of my fellows—but hothoused play right out of it. The one with the greatest legs was (is) the threads around domain-level play in D&D.

It was deeply satisfying to not only write the Borderlands sourcebook (which should be out by the end of the next month) about an area that I always wanted to see explored in that way—but to do it from the ground up by chucking out all the rules expectations and

That exploration started here and continued over a long arc (in the link on the subheader)--and then game back to life on Google Plus with Domain Game II.

One of my goals for this year when it was still a pup was to crank up my interview series, I was very happy with the ones cranked out. It makes me very happy to step back out of the bully pulpit and listen to the voices of some truly interesting folks out there.

We had the mammoth feather-ruffling one with Rob Kuntz and the interesting one with King of Dragon Pass creator David Dunham that revealed the connection of that classic computer game to a tabletop Pendragon variant campaign. I swung back to talking to Jeff Berry, the HC “resident Tekumel expert” about the exciting passing of M.A.R. Barker's collection into the public sphere

We talked with former TSR artist and hard-working game designer Jeff Dee. I explored the long, strange trip of the German world game Magira and some other new worlds with our DIY brethern.

Readers, especially those anonymous hordes from Google searches seem to eat up the series I wrote on what makes for a great map. That series started here and was explored more here.

There were several other major themes (Tekumel, Matters Vancian, Early RPG Experiments, Non-Traditional Sandbox Mechanics , Game Tinkering and of course Actual Play) I may save them for another day—or likely just move on into the flush of the new year.

But that, my friends, was the way it was. I hope that next year, tomorrow, I find you reading, discussing, debating, and playing alongside me again, there is an even greater year to come.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Victory Lap for the Point of Light Winners

The judges have consulted, tough decisions made from the sick bed—and now the envelopes are ready for the Point of Light contest.

A mighty drum roll please.

Best Secret Society, Barry Blatt with the Priesthood of Bakham:
Chief among the disasters was a collapse in farming and the fertility of the soil. For centuries now the Priesthood of the Underworld god Bakham has had charge of embalming and funerals - except they have been secretly making bandaged effigies of the corpses for relatives to bury and recycling the real corpses into vitamin supplements (the Sacred Dust of Bakham to be added to bread) and fertiliser (the Seeds of Bakham without which nothing will grow). 
According to the secret sect of Priest-biochemists the long prophesied day has come, the vital minerals, amino acids and vitamins embodied in the biomass in the valley are running out and the radionuclides are becoming more concentrated. One faction says cull the already cretinous and crippled populace directly, another says let them wander, perhaps there is useable nutrient out there their natural urge to feed will locate.

Runner Up: Robert Parker with Obelisk of the Electric Brain.

Best Adventure Hook, Zzarchov with Gold Hoard for Weddings: 
What is moving people to go outward? Weddings. Specifically that a religious need to have gold bands to get married and become an adult. Thing is when they sealed themselves in the valley they didn't anticipate how big their population would grow over time. They are out of gold and have been for a generation... 
Going with the reason (gold), one old thousand year relic. A deposit receipt to a banking house, with an address. If it is still there, the gold found could make the PC's virtual kings back in the valley (able to extort concessions from "children" looking to marry.)

Runner Up: Jason Sholtis, Mineral Depletion and Barry Blatt with the Bakham hook

Best Something Out There, Robert Parker with Fecund Mounds of the Toxic Hive:
Even a vast repository of knowledge such as the Electric Brain has limits upon its imagination, and over the centuries it grew weary of the various permutations of vat-spawn it could conceive. In its insane quest for novelty, the Brain labored to shape a creature that would produce genetic marvels that would surprise even it. Hence, the Magna Mater, Chalice of the Gods, was born. 
A titanic series of interconnected mounds of ebon flesh, like a series of living hills, Magna Mater is riddled with cave-like orifices where a shocking variety of monstrosities dwell. Known as the Thousand Young, each of these unique spawn spill from the titanic womb that exists in the center of the Magna Mater's mass, loping, hopping, and squirming through the redundant series of "caverns" that comprise its internal organs until they crawl hideously into the world beyond.

Runner Up: Jason Kielbasa for the Mundaneum

Supplementary Kudos

Best Written But I Couldn’t Figure Out What The Hell Category to Put it In as a Winner, Jeremy Duncan with "A Ramble in the Ruins":
Of those that yet remain within the city, or what remains of it, I can report the following: They are a strange folk, pale and wan, inclined to thinness of hair and a certain fleshiness which, though not of such grossness as to provoke disgust, nevertheless inspires uneasiness in the lone traveler. There is a certain oily sheen to the skin, and an aspect of dulled hunger in their eyes -- as if they longed for rich fare and fine wines, but had long ago resigned themselves to stale bread and bitter dregs. The effect is disquieting enough when they are at their ease or at table, but it is alarming when, on those rare occasions when they speak directly to one another, or to strangers, to find that same ill-contented gaze meeting one's own. 

Best Sneaking in of Vagina Imagery, Robert Parker

Winners please drop me a line at kutalik at the gmail dot the com and choose a prize from our pool.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Point of Light Contest Prizes and a Request

For about two days now I have been moving the printed-out entries around and around from the victors pile to the runners-up column to to the sad "almost ran". Truly tough as there is not an entry that I wouldn't use.

My once-a-year dust-up with cold-inducing viruses (invariably sometime around the holidaze) is not helping me adjudicate matters with a clear head. So I am granting myself a reprieve and will be announcing the winners tomorrow morning instead. Whew.

But as to not waste your time with a post only about my public hand-wringing, I do have two items of business.

Firstly here is the prize pool that winners (and possibly runners up) can pick from:
1. Two very nice copies of William Hope Hodgson's classic 1912 The Night Land, a book which several commentators have mentioned (rightly) being very close in spirit to the campaign seed.

2. A nice Avon paperback copy of the Moon Pool by A. Merrit (seen to the right).

3. A laminated copy of the Darlene Greyhawk maps.

Secondly, I wasn't exaggerating about wanting to use all of the entries--and my recent fever dream of synthesizing all of them into a crazy-quilt setting. I am requesting permission from all you fine folks who threw their hats into the ring to do so, with full credits, of course. I have no idea what exactly I may do with it, but I promise that it will be used in play somewhere.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Holiday Freebie: By This Axe

Last year I posted my medieval small battle rules as one of my holiday freebies, this year--while I am not quite finished--I have a revised playtest version of its fantasy cousin, By This Axe I Rule!, available for your Tin God lead-pushing pleasure.

If you are one of the 30 who received the last version a couple months back, there have been a few changes: a cleaning up of vestigal/unclear rules and expanded sections on how you can run monsters and make your game classic D&D compatible. 

A big thank you to Patrick W at Bugbears for Breakfest for his cool, firm hand as editor.

Email me at kutalik at the gmail dot the com for the 18-page PDF file.

Also a reminder that the Point of Light contest will be closed very shortly as it hits noon here. The entries are all quite awesome and I urge readers to check them out here

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Contest Reminder and More Art Inspiration

I just printed out and (re)read all the entries from Tuesday's Point of Light contest. I have been wont to say in past contests how blown away I am by the imaginative richness of my fellow madhouse inmates, a sentiment underscored with a big hefty thick black marker this time around.

My head has been positively swimming with schemes of how I could synthesize all the entries into one crazy quilt of a setting. In other words your generousity has given me a lot of pleasant holiday rumination time.

A quick reminder that the contest officially ends tomorrow at noon Central U.S. (I believe that is -6 GMT for the rest of you). Feel free to leave new entries in the comments here or on the last post.

Also there will be prizes for the winners (even if there is a tie): a range of pulp fantasy books (A. Merrit, REH, Moorcock, and others) and a number of gaming products that I think will be of suitable interest to readers of this blog. I haven't exactly picked the ones I am going to offer, but winners will get a choice from the pool.

To keep up the "last human bastion on top of the world" mood, some more art inspiration courtesy of yet another of my favorite dead Russian painters Nicholas Roerich. (If you have some other aesthetic inspirations you'd think fit with this, share away.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Point of Light Contest

No need for a long set-up. It’s been a good half year since the last Hill Cantons contest/challenge and near (enough) the year anniversary of the first.  The time is nigh.

I need another campaign and setting about as much as I need a hole in my head, but I have found nothing helps me survive the holidays like having something creative to ruminate on.  Why not roll around in my head a pleasant sideline creation of a new setting in this case the half-formed Point of Light idea from the other day?

And I am looking for your help with this contest.

First thing is what we know about the last bastion:
A number of cataclysms befell humanity and its allies a millennium ago.

Human civilization is clustered in a high, narrow mountain basin roughly 90 square miles in area. 

Roughly 10,000 humans live in the valley.  About a third live inside the only remaining quarter  in the ruins of a former great city. Life there, though a shadow of what came before, is highly refined with a tendency to rumination on the abstract and cerebral doctrines—and sensuous vices of the flesh. The rest of the valley is more rough and tumble, there the population holds on in semi-fortified villages dominated by wild religious rites.

Centuries of inwardness, fear, and the lasting effects of a great purge of remnant books and other intellectual artifacts have limited the bastion’s knowledge of the outside world to what can be surveyed from the surrounding peaks: jagged foothills,  vine-choked forests,  giant fungus groves, ash wastes, and the hints of a green-stoned cyclopean ruin.

Beyond the horizon lurks a vast wilderness haunted by bands of inhuman reaver bands and the truly monstrous.  

Something has shifted in the valley in the last decade, the rulers of the land have finally opened up that last safety valve to keep their control of the last bastion: permission to explore beyond the peaks. The insane, the maladjusted, and restless dregs of the citizenry answer the call.
Contest Categories:
A Secret Society, Cultural Movement or other Social Quirk that either accounts for the inwardness and decadence of the valley—or what’s motivating the new outward-looking attitude..

A Sandbox Adventure Hook. Now that someone has answered the call to adventure, what is it?

Something “Out  There”.  Some site of mystery:  a geographic  area, structure, bizarre creature, or what.

Contest Rules:
You can provide entries in any or all of the categories in the comments section. The winner for each category will receive a smallish prize TBA. Contest ends Friday at noon CST.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Campaign Seeds: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A follow-up from yesterday's picking over of my draft box rejects for campaign ideas. Today I offer you the even worse ideas (hold your nose)--and some ideas that come to think of it might not be half bad.

The Good

Mook Island. A mini-campaign akin in spirit to that flawed 0-level AD&D module Treasure Hunt. The players are all classless 0-level nobodies with no alignment and not much of anything in their possesion. Unlike the module the island would be completely free of lead-you-by-the-hand plotting and be much more of a self-contained sandbox.

Play focus would be first and formost on survival—with a big emphasis on the little mundane resource management that even first-level characters take for granted. Special (and simple) rules for weapon/equipment breakage, foraging, weather nastiness would underscore this. Eventually players would start to focus on attaining first-level status and getting off the island.

I probably could have revived this idea when I started working on my zero-level variant rules months later, but got stuck on getting it around making it something other than “we run from the single kobold armed with a mound of wet toilet paper” or “we spend the session making fire-hardended spears and gathering tubers” kind of inanity. DCC RPG's (whatever happened to that?) “character funnel” concept would also be handy in making this work.

The Point of Light. One (of very few) things I think 4e D&D got right was a return to the concept of “Points of Light”, that human civilization is a very fragile and far-flung surrounded by howling wilderness. Isolated settlements/environments have always held a deep fascination for me, this campaign would take it to its logical extreme.

To the players' best knowledge there are no other “points of light” in the world. The home area is a lone land surrounded by vast stretches of non-human infested wilderness. The map is completely dark outside the civilized zone. Unlike Gamma World there might not actually be any human civilization at all in the great beyond.

Lots of long thought-trains to be dealt with this one to make it a go: how big does the home area population have to be to not just sink under inbreeding? How do you balance all the presumed massive influx of player-found swag into a closed economy? How much technology could they retain without any trade partners and other resource bases. Etc. Etc.

Some of the tropes were recycled into the Colony of Domain Game II.

The Ugly

Y-Camp D&D. Another one for the “this started as a joke”column. Made even worse by the fact that we actually discussed running it. Since some of my resolution mechanics revolved around true-to-the-time preteen stupid arguments-- up to and including such things as punching the GM in the arm—one of the worst ideas I have ever come up with.

Fantasy Football-like Fantasy. Players would draft an imaginary team of their top five favorite game designers than try and conceptualize various products they would come up with. Then each imaginary product would face off against another team's product and a ref would rate them. Teams would advance through the season to a championship.

Might have been only an “intellectual” exercise-type post, but inside baseball codified in such a way--painful.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Terrible Campaign Ideas

One thing I have noticed about creeping middle age is that milestones leave me increasingly asking, “when the hell did that happen?” Recently I ran over the 400 posts mark (really now 420 but why quibble).

Even more astounding has been the continued march of my unpublished draft posts—hitting 300 this month also. That's a lot sitting idle on the cutting floor. Granted about a quarter of that yawning hole in my draft folder are just plain technical misfires, another fifth of them are good, healthy, interesting posts that I just ran out of time in my two-hour window for gaming-related writing I ration myself each day.

The rest...well the on the Island of the Misfit Toys; stunted little dwarf posts that either were too clumsy, too polemical, too badly-timed, or too just damn weird for me to release them into the light of day. Of course these I secretly love.

A for instance, these I group under the title of Malformed Campaign Seeds (and this mind you is only the coherent half of them):
Evolving System World. This idea evolved out of discussion of the familiar rules-detail/crunch arc—that is you start playing a rules lite game only to want more and more layers of rule complexity to the point that you actually start either jumping systems or creating Frankenrpgs. In a nutshell the campaign would codify this.

The PCs start playing with a completely free-form game with few formal options. Each campaign year we would port the game to a new rules system of varying complexity. So after the faceless mooks in grey jumpsuits storygamed their way through that year they'd go on to be OD&D characters the next year would add Greyhawk so on down the line until they were playing Rolemaster or someother bat-shit complex system.

A truly stupid idea, somewhat akin to saying: “I hate smoking. Too get it out of my system I am going to start smoking five Camel Lites a day eventually working my way up to a carton of Pall Malls.”

Literary Tower of Babel World. A variation on the last one, really. In this one each “land” in the campaign world is dominated by a single theme heavily based on a particular fantasist's work. So you are booging around in Zothique with a bleak range of S&S-like options and then the next day you crossed the mountains and were tooling around Gondor with yet another. Each land would have totally different emulative mechanics for it. Oh it hurts.

Polish “Time of Troubles”. Campaign set in the vast borderlands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the 17th-Century. Cossacks, feathered hussars, sabre duels, empty steppes, spooky wetlands, all the works. I planned on converting the Polish RPG Dzikie Pola still sitting on my desk for the project.

It's the last part that makes it a bad campaign idea—any idea that involves you learning a new language and then doing a translation of part or all of a 318-page book is a truly, truly terrible idea.

Pan Chakan Defiance (or Jews with Guns..In Tekumel). A recent joke that almost became a post. Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber lead a band of Jewish partisans through a nexus point into the vast jungles of the Chakas in Tekumel. Guns ablazing they hold off the combined military forces of the Petal Throne, the Red Hats and the Pe Choi. Bad in-jokes makes for worse campaigns.

Now I know very well that many of you have harbored Bad Campaign Ideas (I read your blogs after all, ha). Let your hair down, here's your chance to share. What's lurking in your closet?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Nireus's Tale

Yesterday I mentioned in passing that one of my favorite parts of classic-style gaming is the “emergent story” that happens at the table (opposed to say the newer habits of heavy pre-layering of GM meta-plots). Dice fall, combats are won and lost, jokes made and in all that chaos a “story” is made after the fact.

David Rollins playing the “pretty boy” ministrel-gladiator (a strangeness made possible by my Conan/ZeFRS random gen system) Nireus in the second one-shot composed one of the better (or at least amusing) first-person accounts I have read. I present his mighty ballad here for readers. 

(And if you are in a kindly mood today why not stop over at my earlier post and help me crowdsource the next scenario in this trilogy.)

The Tale of Nireus and the Foul Sorcerer Mogg

Hark! Gather close and hear the tale of how the great Nireus of Argos came to save the people of Ifar from the terrors of Mogg and the temple on the blue mountain.

It is a tale that begins, like so many, with a betrayal. Betrayal that lead to the destruction of the fierce company of warriors known as the Free Companions. With the rest of the Companions scattered and hopeless, Nireus gathered a small group of stalwart warriors to him and struck out across the steppes.

It was a journey that would purify their spirits with hardship. When they finally drank deeply of the pure waters of Ifar their minds were clear of purpose and their souls full of mercy and determination. Aye, such men as these could do naught else when the warrior princess Larissa beseeched their aid in the protection of the sacred village of Ifar.

Long had the foul necromancer plagued the good people of Ifar but lo, of late he had taken to capturing the fair maidens of the town to sacrifice in his diabolical rites.

Nireus, moved by their plight, gathered his men: Galbor of the Steppes, Iago the Zigaran and his faithful retainer Virain the Poet and bade Larissa lead him to the fell, blue mountain of the necromancer and priest of unmentionable gods, Mogg.

She lead the courageous troupe over dangerous mountain paths filled with harrowing heights and fierce creatures without number. Still, the men of Nireus won through with little trouble. When they reached the mountain the fair warrior maiden gave them three choices for the assent to the foul temple. The first was far in the distance, an easy trail up the mountain which they could see was clear of enemy and danger. The second was closer and offered a simple walk up a mountain path cut by a lazy river. The last was closer still; an arch that lead into the darkness beneath mountain and into the lower levels of the temple. Surely the enemy lay there in wait for the heroes that the gods would provide to the good people of Ifar!

The trials of the journey had done naught but wet the appetite of Nireus for battle. He chose to immediately grapple with the darkness of the temple and plunged into the inky uncertainty of the archway.

He ordered Larissa wait at the entrance for their inevitable return but she was noble and brave and would stand with her saviours, come what may.

The first door was a simple puzzle which Nireus had open in a mere moment but they were forced to walk in single file through a narrow corridor. Keen-eyed Iago took the lead, ever wary for the foemen of the terrible mountain while Nireus came behind him leading the beautiful Larissa by her hand.

A heavy door slid out of the wall and struck a terrible blow against Nireus; though he kept to his feet. Even so, while Nireus regained his balance an awful creature of the grave came from behind the door to tear poor Larissa from his grasp! The creature returned to the darkness with Larissa in tow and the heavy door began sliding closed behind him. With no holds or rings upon the door to grasp, the determined Argosian jammed his trident into the narrow space left and levered the stone door open with a might unmatched in these times.

While he held the cyclopean portal wide his men dashed into the secret way to give chase to the foul creature and his fair prize, Larissa. Understanding the will of their leader, Galbor and Virain quickly dashed through the door, though Iago was distracted by the decor of the room and had to be commanded to follow. The great door slammed shut behind Nireus as he followed his men but alas, they were slower than the preternatural creature and soon lost him in the maze of tunnels beneath the mountain.

Their trials as they searched the mountain for the fair princess Larissa were many and unnatural but there were a few battles note.

In a great cavern two demonic creatures, horrific blending of bats and men, descended from the darkness to harry the courageous band. Iago and Galbor fell upon one and tore at the thing's wings. Nireus shrugged off the pain of the fiend's claws as the larger creature raked his muscular flesh. He struck it to the ground with a sweep of his trident. Virain, with no martial skill of his own but a great loyalty to his friend and master, grabbed at the demon's wing to keep it from escaping Nireus' wrath. With a single blow, Nireus transfixed the the foul thing with his trident and sent it back to the hell from whence it had come.

Soon after the cavern, the bold band of heroes entered a great hall filled with pyramids of bones. What suffering these corpses had to endure the heroes could not know, even so they steeled themselves to avenge each and every one of the multitude strewn before them. They did not travel far when they were confronted by a terrible ghoul such as had taken the fair Larissa. Quick witted Iago pulled an ancient tapestry from the wall and wrapped it about the creature. Nireus leapt upon the bones of the fallen to prepare to deliver the final blow as brave and sure Virain touched his torch to the tapestry. The foul creature writhed widely in the flames but it was for nought as as a mighty blow from Nireus' trident brought it low forever.

Galbor and Virain turned to face two more ghoulish horrors as Iago ran from the battle to tear another tapestry from the wall. Galbor fell beneath the savagery of his foe while Virain stumbled out of reach of the blows meant to bring his own death. Nireus bellowed and dipped his trident into the fire of his still burning foe so that it might know the heat of his rage and struck Galbor's killer squarely. It too knew the heat of his fury as it burst into flames and died it's final death in screaming agony. While Iago swung from the second tapestry in his efforts to dislodge it, Nireus delivered another mighty blow to the final ghoul and laughed as it too suffered a flaming death of righteous fury.

Their thoughts on the peril of the fair Larissa, the heroes quickly cremated Galbor's remains over the burning bodies of his vanquished foes, praying his soul would rise upon the smoke of vengeance to the heavens.

Climbing upward through the gloomy halls of the temple the heroes came to a room with no floor. Housed beneath the scant and narrow beams, a creature of shadow and malice approached the three companions. Furious at what the delay might mean for the fate of fair Larissa, Nireus brandished his fearsome trident, Tribrand, and prepared to deal the hellish fiend a mortal blow. To the surprise of all, as he shook the fell weapon, a flame shot out of the fork toward the darkness of the creature. It recoiled from the furious light and cowered at the entrance to its lair.

Iago, emboldened by the creature's cowardice sauntered across the narrow beam with only the gentle sway of his hips to hold his balance. With the sure feet and powerful gait of a mountain lion Nireus also crossed the chamber. Virain followed with a watchful eye on the shadowy evil below.

The heroes then came to a chasm so deep it seemed to be without a bottom. Though a red glow far into the depths promised a fiery death should one of them fall. Even so, with the Ifar and Larissa depending on them, they did not hesitate and swung across the deep wound in the earth on a rusty old chain that hung from the ceiling.

A dark and twisting tunnel lead them to the decayed temple on the mountain peak. As they alighted the heap of rubble at the entrance they saw the evil Mogg chanting and preparing Larissa and another daughter of Ifar for sacrifice to his foul god. With a bellow of challenge, Nireus charged across the distance to bring Mogg's unnatural life to an end with Iago on his heels. Virain scuttled behind the rubble and made his approach to the fair victims with all speed that he safely could.

Mogg dispatched a lion's corpse, bound by unholy necromancy and strengthened by it's unnatural attachment to the mortal realm, to intercept the two valiant warriors. It was a worthy challenge for Nireus' skill and Tribrand twitched in his hands at the creature's approach. Still, he knew his duty was to rescue the the women and rid the world of the sorcerer Mogg's evil so he dug the butt of Tribrand into the rubble and vaulted over the beast so he could continue his charge.

Iago's twin blades flashed and struck the beast like lightning striking the steppes. He hacked chunks of dead flesh from its carcass and still it clawed vainly at him while they danced their fearsome duet. Iago leapt upon the great creature's back and plunged his daggers deep into its eyes and rode it until its spirit returned to the land of the dead for its final rest.

While Iago fought heroically against Mogg's hell-spawn minion, Virain struggled to cut the bonds of the Fair Princess Larissa and Nireus rained mighty blows upon Mogg in an effort to cancel his horrific magics. Mogg's chants evoked a terrible vortex of blood red mist above the alter. A dread creature from beyond entered the vortex and slapped vainly about the heroes with a multitude of tentacles.

Virain freed Larissa but was struck down by the dread god's tentacle before he could reach other fair maid.

The titanic struggle between Nireus and Mogg raged as the storm rages. Nireus cast aside the bindings of Mogg's magic like so many cobwebs. He struck a mortal blow, driving Triband deep into Mogg's chest. Even so, the bond between the sorcerer and the monstrous creature of the vortex remained unbroken. Nireus gripped his great trident in two hands and tossed Mogg into the air as a farmer tosses sheaves of wheat with his fork. Still he chanted, invoking the dread god alight upon the mountain's peak. Once more Nireus struck the sorcerer, Tribrand biting into his neck and chest. With heaving of his mighty arms he tore out Mogg's throat and collar bone, forever stanching the flow of hellish filth from Mogg's mouth.

And so it was finished. The mist cleared and the dread creature of the abyss disappeared. Virain recovered quickly from his wounds and Iago sauntered sexily down the mountain trail weighing double by Mogg's treasure.

A toast to the mighty warrior and hero: Nireus of Argos!

Crowdsourcing the Next Hyborian Romp

This weekend's face-to-face game marked the third time I have run the Conan/ZeFRS one-shot. There must be some twisted, soul-shriven social scientist buried in me as one of the most enjoyable things for me is the game as a comparative exercise.

It's absolutely fascinating how all three groups of Hyborian neerdowells when confronted with the same range of choices would at some points 100 percent of the time take the same one (always the tunnel) and at others come up with a wild range of divergent action. I will probably run it one more time this month if I can squeeze in a game before the holidays blot out the sun.

Which leads me to my work on the second linked Hyborian adventure coming in January. It's always fun to see what the unwashed Internet hordes come out with in a brainstorm bull session, so here I am throwing open the gates. Please help me throw some paint on the canvas and we'll see what sticks. (If your idea gets worked in there, you'll get full credit.)

Here's my ballpark for the adventure:
1. I am not doing straight adaptions of Conan stories, but I am trying my damnest to keep them in the spirit of the actual REH stories and not the later pastiches. So all's fair in terms of taking small elements from the stories: a situation here, a character there and the like. The closer in feel to real Howard material—even if it's from another story cycle (hell I've already thrown Bran Mak Morn and Kull in there) the better. Any choice bits you'd love to see scattered in there for color and texture?

2. I need to get it out of the dungeon as the main adventure site (though it certainly can contain some underground exploration as a sideshow). Suggestions for solid Howardian places to perform brave acts in?

3. I really want to do a mass pitched battle. It could be an affair like the Battle of Shamla Pass in "Black Colossus" or something wholy different. I would likely use the mass battle rules that came in the third TSR Conan module so that the outcome is actually variable—and can be heavily effected by the actions of players. Suggestions on who's battling, why the players are involved, or what kind of cut-scene/action points I can throw in there?

4. I want to have a small city/town/social “scene” which can test more of the civilian skills and especially the character-chosen weaknesses (like Weakness to Men/Women, wine, gluttony, or gambling). Any suggestions there?

Anything else, my friends? Wild, crazy, and off-the-wall welcome. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Playing More, Feeling Good

Deep in my cups last night with my visiting buddy, Red from Redbeard's Raving, we came around to talking about the post-game “GM high.” Just out of running a spontaneous face-to-face third run at Mogg's mountain featuring Desert Scribe as the mighty axe-cleaving Kull and Red as the Zamoran rogue Shevatas, I was feeling that familiar and addictive spike of adrenalin after a good session.

Undoubtedly, part of the cycle begins with the jitters of stage fright. (And quite honestly I feel it before every single session even with friends near and dear.) It's an old feeling—much akin to what I remembered of my time decades ago of doing theater—the conquering of which invariably leaves me amped up to 11 afterward with the flush of “performing.”

Feeding it as been a lot of the between-session chatter of the involved players. Each session tends to bring me into contact with new players and all kinds of quirky little “emergent story” by-products have bubbled out of the at-table chaos (more about that Hyborian and Domain player-written madness later).

Even when my evening Google+ sessions run into the wee hours of my much coveted sleep schedule I have tended to keep trying to ride out my buzz around the meta-bull sessions that Zak S. has been hosting under the “Let's Fight about RPGs” banner.

Taking stock, I am a bit taken aback by how deep I have sunk in. Six months ago most of my gaming activity mostly revolved around the once every 3-4 weeks tabletop Hill Cantons campaign. These days between the Google+ Petal Throne, Domain Game II, Conan one-shots, and of course play in other people's worlds, I am playing roughly twice a week: a six-fold increase.

It's a surprise to busy real life me—doubly so since it's been very sustainable. Cutting out the less emotionally satisfying, black hole of computer gaming altogether and the sudden flexibility of being able to virtually run or play in a game whenever I have a few idle hours have opened up more play windows. And with that high back there I keep returning like someone jonesing for black tar heroin.

Point is, I am not trying to beat on the drum again about G+ gaming; it's more of a sudden, broader recognition that there are  benefits to this hobby that I just don't get it out of other interests. There is some indeed method inside my own obsessional madness and that method is something that has felt good and healthy.

I have a feeling that I just might not be alone in this. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Welcome to Ma'arb, the Land of 500 Graces

The uncouth barbarian scum that make up the zrne-share of players in our Jakalla Petal Throne games on Google+ are said to be refugees from the obscure southern land of Ma'arb. Observing the Discrete Etiquette of Background Facts that Mean Little to Players, not much is known in the Five Empires of that distant, dusty place.

Ma'arb lies mainly on a thorn-tree covered hilly plateau punctuated by grassland prairies and labyrinthine box canyons. Around the two rivers draining it there are fertile bottom lands where most of the population resides in teetering fortified steads made from jer-dun, the mortar of the shells of gargantuan sand mollusks.

The capital city of Ber'jef, the Classical Ma'arbyani word for “Sanguinolent Fortress That Wraps the Sky in Apricity”, was founded as a remote Engsvanyali military cantonment and trading concession with the local hill tribes. In its heyday a millennium ago it was a flourishing trade center, but as the continent-wide demand for hu'uz (an allegedly-madness producing liquor brewed from Zibraan, the underparts of a local grub) shrunk so did the fortunes of the city.

The isolation and decline of Ma'arb in recent centuries was compounded by an incursion of the Kazs, an obscure branch of the dreaded Ssu that now lay claim to vast, cycolpean ruins near the single mountain pass off of the plateau--passes that would otherwise connect Ma'arb to the other nations of the so-called Southern Continent. The local Foes of Man are hunchbacked, mauve in complexion, and reek of stale cardamon.

Ber'jef today is but a dusty shell of its once glorious self.

Religion in Ma'arb is dominated by a Manichean system split between two god-heads, one symbolizing “Stability”, the other “Change”. The seeming unity of this doctrine is marred by an internecine factionalism.

It is said by wags that for every five Ma'arbyani there are six competing cosmologies--and in truth much of the nation's cultural and intellectual life is consumed by fervent debate of these matters of religion (questions such as whether Tekumel was created from the Top Down or Bottom Up or if life can be described as a fast-moving game or a loose, but grand narrative for example) .

Each school of thought is called a “grace”. One such grace is the Equipollent Idolaters, a school of thought that maintains that the deities of Pavar are in fact not just major aspects of the twin god-heads, but separate divine beings in their own right. Refugee priests of this grace seem to have little difficulty--once their atrocious barbarian uncouthness is overlooked--fitting into the local temple structures of Tsolyanu.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Clark Ashton Smith Fans: Which Cycle?

I am told that good things come to those that wait...or something and the other...really I am too restless and impatient to listen anymore to these kinds of homespun adages.

Though recently it did ring true. After a year of patient (and disciplined) bidding, I won a sweet and affordable lot of those Ballantine paperback collections of Clark Ashton Smith's work.

Though I had read several of the entries in the Hyperborean cycle (including my favorite, flawed CAS gem “The Seven Geases”) it was pleasure to get a chance to read them all in one sitting. 

But even more than the stories; the introduction, hand-drawn map, and geographic walk-through by Lin Carter—really someone should have had a tough love intervention with that man to limit him to this kind of editorial core competency—really fired up my imagination.

I instantly wanted to plop that time-forgotten lost-isle straight down into the Hill Cantons. (Since I have had vague allusions to the lost Hyperborean civilization all along not a terrible stretch).

So here's my query of the week to you in the echo chamber: if you had to pick one of his story settings/cycles, which would you base a game setting on and why?

Zothique? Hyperborea? Averoigne? Xiccarph? Something else? (If you are going to cherry-pick from several, you better defend that position, pal.)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Random Character Generation for a Hyborian Age

I just couldn't leave well enough alone. Give me a game, even one that I love and mostly works for me and within a couple weeks time I am already bolting on flashy bits of chrome or trying to kit out his engine.

I swore great blood-sealed oaths to grim Ymir that I would just play Conan/ZeFRS straight out of the box, but here I am doling out some variants. It's probably not a great surprise to longtime readers that the first thing I would take a sharp chopping instrument to is the point-buy system (a particular and persistent dislike of mine), and that I did.

See below for a random character generation system to be used with TSR Conan rpg or its lovable, free clone ZeFRS . Because it spills out over a few pages, I will only present part of the subsystem blogside. You can find the full PDF download here.

As always this is a work in progress and I would greatly appreciate feedback (no seriously, please drop me at least a line about it). Does it work? Is it clear?Tweaks? Or do you just want to hit it with your axe?

Design Goals:
Speed up character gen. Should take 5-15 minutes with the subsystem.

Reduce min/max dithering. Characters will have a decent, sensible spread of talents. And removing the min/max impulse means that players can be surprised by what they may get. Some choice still exists with the election to take rolls on the weakness charts (any talent points there can be freely assigned).

Provide color. The background charts provide some decent REH archetypical characters with a light touch that allows for them to figure out most real details of their character at the table.

Bolster the power range a tad. Characters generated here get an extra talent point and five extra talent points per weakness to compensate for being bound by the almighty die.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mastering Mogg's Mountain

Late Friday I managed to host the first foray into Hyborian mayhem on Google Plus. The muscled moody Pict, Bran Mak Morn (Jeremy D), the crafty Zingaran rogue Belvis (Michael M), the Northman Angnar (Jeffery O), and some Shemite pirate-chick "born under a Stygian catapult" (Steven G) all took the first run against the Mountain.

There was the mighty wrestling of beasts, there were gems stolen the size of a grown man's fist. There was eldritch evil and the rending of flesh. There were deaths both glorious and ignominious.

In short it worked. Mostly.

Crafting one-shots is a tough business. Especially ones that aim at: 1. being wrapped up completely in three hours; 2. building in at least a few meaningful, non-railroady choices; 3. providing a brisked pace, action-oriented romp with some diversity of adversity; and 4. concentrating on the literary flavor and themes of just one distinct (if powerful) element in the stew that went into our old favorite fantasy game. A tall order.

I agonized over the parameters. The number of rooms and encounters that can reasonably be explored in an hour. The ratio of empty rooms to stocked; the questions of whether or not you can really have something with real non-linear choice in something so clearly delineated. Finally even deigning to crowdsource.

(The peanut gallery opines from 4-10 rooms—including empties--can be explored in an hour, while my gut says you can present anywhere from 2-4 branching paths without breaking a scenario altogether).

I learned a lot from the writing, much more from the playing and the gracious feedback of the players. The aim is to play this scenario at least two or three more times—fine-tuning as I go—and then run two more linked (if only episodically in fine REH non-chronological, geography-denying order) scenarios the same number. By the end perhaps I will have finally gotten some window into this difficult art.

Switching gears back to organizing the current games, based on feedback I tried to frontload the exposition more. It cuts out a set-piece that had a non-linear array of choices behind it, but hey that just cuts your time down getting to the real meat and the bigger choices when you are staring up at that solitary peak.

The new full version of the prologue can now be found as a PDF file here (see “King of the Mountain” file). And if your mind—like mine--just naturally skips over the italicized purple prose of such creatures, the ADD version is neatly numbered and served to you in happy meal-sized bites below. Amphetamine salt optional.

The ADD version:
  1. You are motley crew of destitute fugitives from the Free Companions, a mercenary band destroyed a few weeks ago on the steppes.
  2. You found Ifar, an isolated, down-on-its-heels mountain town, facing a sinister evil in the shape of Mogg, a sorcerer-priest, taking the town’s wealth—and now taking its women as sacrifices.
  3. Roped in by the exhortations of the warrior-lass Larissa, you have set out to take Mogg down from his lair high up on Mount Ged.
  4. You have three avenues before you for the ascent (see illustration, forget about the jingling sound of keys).

Friday, December 2, 2011

Jakalla and Nowhere: the Player's Perspective

I have noted elsewhere my phobia/disinterest around session reports.

Said pathology doesn't extend to my players. I always get a kick out of seeing the game as it is viewed through their eyes. On my better days even reading them I learn something about how to tailor games better to what they pick up on--and what they filter out.

A number of session reports have been coming back out of the Petal Throne and Domain Game II sessions on Google Plus as of late, so how about a little show and tell.

Tekumel fans may enjoy a quick account by the “high-functioning autistic” hunter-barbarian played by Jason K on his sojourn through the Jakallan Underworld here. Related through my EPT co-DM, Jeremy, is an account of last night's session by Evan on the happenings on that haunted isle just outside the City Half as Old as the World here (while you are at it you can pick up Jeremy's nice EPT character sheet here as a free download).

Finally back in Nowhere, Peter Robbins has a tale of frontier life to relate:

Jathur Ol Kadim slowly works his way around the fort on horseback, taking note of defenses that need building up. The recent attack by the hoard of undead white apes has left the newly settled community on razor’s edge. Nerves are palpably shattered amongst the settlers. They all share a simple but nervous greeting with Jathur as he makes his way through their rank and file. Each member of the community are seen pitching in--digging for new crops, clearing brush, removing chopped down trees; any way to keep their minds off the looming chaos spire still creeping into their thoughts.

Jathur himself looks with trepidation towards the previously “humming” apparition of a spire in the dark distant woods. If he listens closely, he can still hear it’s echo from recent past. A tell tale heart of darkness, pulsing their brains in the night’s sky.

Jathur finishes his rounds, returning to the fort, hoping the weight of his new leadership role to this garrison will soon dissipate. The “Vermillion Lancers”, a rag tag group of mounted mercenaries supplied to Jathur and company to help buttress the garrison fort are far from professional grade. 

Over the past few days he has attempted to whip them into shape, using the skills he learned as a warrior of the Desolate Isles. Constant drills, day in and out : making charges at looped rings on horseback, letting arrows fly to target from mount and foot, and stabbing at large bags of unusable grain stacked and tied to stumps or low-lying trees. They’ll make good soldiers, some day, just not today.

Jathur settles in, leaving horse tied near the barracks. He looks in on a make-shift hospital area setup in the large barracks area. Several settlers have taken on illness, or hurt themselves with a loosened axe head; nothing critical. Needing shelter, Jathur allowed them to be settled into the fort instead of the budding encampment, for it cannot be called a “village” in any shape or form yet.

Jathur moves on from the barracks, passing through the smells of the unmanned kitchen, the dinner from last night still lingering in the stale air. He then makes his way into the previous warden’s office. Jathur still is not used to having his own room. He is not used to ordering men around either. He prefers the company of fellow warriors ; equals, under night desert sky to this predicament. Call them the Desolate Isles all you may, but at night, in the summer sky; a warm curved woman by your side - the freedom you felt cannot compare to these ‘civilized’ lands.

Jathur sits down to practice his recently acquired writing skills. Bringing ink to parchment....

The 20th Day Of Summer, Fort Va‘rok

Summoned to the Jade Quarter of Lyk Ku’tah, along with fellow explorers Hasan and Betkin.

Received new title Warden of the South Reaches. I will receive a 2000 LB (Large Bronze) stipend/budget yearly to garrison the fort.

Traveled back from Lyk Ku ‘tah to Duke Mraz’s Southlands holdfort. Attempted to discuss the new promotion with the Duke, but was summarily told to “bugger off, the Duke is busy!” by his attendant.

Re-provisioned the caravan, containing Hassen and Betkin, along with roughly 40 settlers and 7 mercenaries of the Vermillion Lancers.

Caravan traveled to Fort Va‘rok to begin establishing Hassen’s sub-sub-barony, and build out a village for Betkin and his fellow colony settlers.

The group notices that a previous mass grave of indigenous White Apes, very large 4 armed apes roughly 8’ in height, is now empty. The previous smell of DEATH in the area surrounding the fort is now gone. The humming of the nearby glass Chaos Spire however, still rings in their ears. Even more so then in past expeditions to Fort Va’rok and it’s surrounding area.

The group decides to start immediately to clear the forest in the two square miles south of Fort Va ‘rok, which was bestowed to Sub-Baron Hasan. Betkin takes the lead in helping the settlers split up into the infirm and the spriteful, taking the able-bodied folks to help hatchet their way through the mixed brush and trees nearby.

I establish the Vermillion Lancers into the main tower of the Fort, allowing the settlers to temporarily take the larger barracks.

That night, during second watch, an alarm is raised. Panic ensues amongst the settlers and warriors alike. A dozen great white apes, undead in nature, attack the fort. A long battle ensues, many of us injured.

One beggar, now known affectionately as “Beggarman”, acts heroically during the battle, taking on several white apes on his own, with little to no skills at his aid. Surprisingly, he survives.

All parties act heroically throughout the battle. The undead white apes were all killed, without loss of warriors or settlers.

It is noticed that the previous humming of the nearby glass-like “Chaos Spire” has ceased. It was determined that in the morning, the group would venture out and see what if anything is currently going on near the spire.

Hasan, Betkin and I, travel to the chaos spire to investigate. Hasan investigates the spire, prodding and poking about. Soon a ghost-like apparition appears from the nearby woods, the same long lost general of the Southlands Satrapy that the group prior had seen. This time, Hasan is able to take his anti Chaos amulet, and force the apparition to retreat. Throughout, Hasan nobly asks the apparition to leave willingly, to no avail.

Several days have passed without further attacks or activity of note...

Signed, Jathur Ol Kadim, Warden Of The South Reaches