Thursday, August 23, 2012

News of Kezmarok

Tomorrow I will be returning to more regular posting again by revving up a new series called "Deepening the D&D Sandbox" which will explore some ways I've been trying to supplement standard old school site-based exploration—without throwing out the non-linear baby.

Today as a lead-up (and catch up for out-of-the-loop players or voyeurs) to talking about the complicated urban adventure dance in the half-ruined southern metropolis of Kezmarok (current stomping grounds of the G+ crew in the Hill Cantons campaign world) I am presenting a number of color elements. (Trust me, the last section will be relevant in the series.)
Monarchist Mural on the Hall of the Restorationists

And now the news:
Tomorrow marks the Grand Petition, the annual, now-ritual presentation of an ever-growing list of particulars by the Turko-Fey to the governing council of the city, Kezmarok, so-long besieged by them. The list is headed by the demand of free access to the Rubicand Caverns of Oldest Lhoma and the Cerulean Vaults of To'yh said to exist in under the city. No Kezmaroki will speak to exactly why the access is denied, but the petition is expected to be met by the 504th annual veto by a sitting Decade-King.

Schmuul, a cloth trader and local lay-priest of the Silent God, is looking for help in divesting his townhouse of a “dibbuk” (an undead spirit). Compensation to be given on completion of the exorcism.

Meanwhile back in the Cantons, High Summer is being celebrated tonight on the shortest night of the year, Altnoc. Traditionally a turtle shell is placed inside a wagon wheel and rolled into an enormous bonfire while celebrants plait wreaths of nightshade and jump across the blazing logs in defiance of the demons who dwell Beyond the Veil. 
Siege Camps of the Turko-Fey

The Stiffbind Circus, a traveling troupe of mummers, nipple-pierced bears, and performing freaks, will be running shows this week in the Plaza of World-Weary Sighs. Given last year's impalement of circus members, mimery will not be featured.

Lord Timorsz, Lord-Warden of the Outer Isle of Mirr (one of the few existent possessions of Kezmarok Beyond-the-Rock), has declared a week of mourning for his lost daughter, Jitka. Famed for her fair-haired beauty throughout the isles, Jitka went missing on a holiday junket in Kezmarok. The bereaved father promises a hefty reward for news of his daughter—and the bringing to a presumably rough justice of the culprits.

The near west side of High Kezmarok is aflame again with squatters league turf wars. A full on battle royale erupted yesterday between the Wereshark Band and the Ebon-Jets (a reference to a popular fountain). The skirmish left 23 dead. 
Upper East Side

Denizens of mid-east High Kezmarok (few that they are these sad days) were shocked to discover yesterday morning to find that an enormous sinkhole had opened up at the end of the Scintillating Avenue of Strident Strumpetry. An entire city-block including the Malodorous Association of Reaving Boyars meeting-hall—much-beloved by architectural students of the VII Xenid era—now lies swallowed up in the 150-foot deep chasm. The remains of strange blueish stone structures can be glimpsed among the surface wreckage below.

A known Five-Banners leader, Jovo the Jocular, has been slain in a murder most foul.  A local cobbler, Sakho vin Sette, has been arrested and put to the question. Kezmaroki military officers are declaring this day, an official Day of Mourning and under an implied threat of arms are making mandatory the wearing of mauve (the city color of grief). It was reported yesterday that Sakho died in a futile “attempt to escape” from the dungeons under the Palace of Affairs Urban.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Stealthy as Rats in the Wainscoting of their Society

I have written before about how my grandfather was a consummate storyteller, a real master of that oral art (leaving beside my own obvious bias).

His farm life in the Czech-belt of Central Texas during the Depression and his From Here to Eternity soldiering in pre-war Hawaii loomed large and evocatively in full technicolor for me. With undulating sweeps of his wrinkled hands he'd conjure up the rugged green ridges of Oahu, a sudden thrust of his fist would paint an instant picture of the boar breaking out of the brush that knocked him off the trail.

Quite a few of those stories featured what apparently was a commonplace in hard scrabble America before WWII: a hustle. Part mortality story, part grudging marvel at the gumption or moxie of the grifter, there were countless variations of these con-men tales.

My eternal suspicion about being approached on the street or a knock on the door—even the more obvious and sincere attempts--instantly sends off the imminent-hustle warning bells. Still I have carried with me alongside that guardedness a lifelong fascination with picaros, mountebanks and other rogues that rely on wit and keen insight into the manipulable sides of the human character.

Of course, that's why a Mountebank class not only exists in my campaign, but have leading PCs in the G+ group playing them. And that's why I tend to encourage and enjoy the antics of the players working their various hustles and other bits of what we call the life of an Eternal Scumbag (a play on Moorcock's Eternal Champion including a vague, “racial” memory for player-characters who come in as replacements for slain previous characters).

This is a long windup to the sad news I heard about Harry Harrison's passing this morning. The Stainless Steel Rat stories--while not on par in my tastes with the picaresque scalawags of Cervantes, Vance, and Fraser (Flashman)--were a solid entry in my speculative fiction outlet for that fascination. I enjoyed the elaborate heists of his anti-hero James Bolivar diGriz , his confidence tricks—and the occasional and inevitable comeuppance by the stern hand of the Special Corps. That it all took place on a Space Opera stage (one cited as a source on Classical Traveller I hasten to add), was just pure icing.

A blurb copy on the first edition of the Stainless Steel Rat stories states the Eternal Scumbag credo just so perfectly:

“We must be as stealthy as rats in the wainscoting of their society. It was easier in the old days, of course, and society had more rats when the rules were looser, just as old wooden buildings have more rats than concrete buildings. But there are rats in the building now as well. Now that society is all ferrocrete and stainless steel there are fewer gaps in the joints. It takes a very smart rat indeed to find these openings. Only a stainless steel rat can be at home in this environment.”

So goodbye Slippery Jim. May the Colonel and Manzafrain the Mirthful do justice to your memory.

GuadaComaCon Schedule August 18

Our South Texas minicon, now stylishly renamed GuadaComaCon, is this Saturday, August 18 at the Convention Center in New Braunfels. The event is still free and most games have at least one seat open, so come on down (drop me an email at kutalik at the gmail dot com).

Below is the schedule (and expect there to be some rpg and boardgame takers on those open gaming slots):

MORNING: 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Mines of Moria: fantasy miniatures scenario
Clay-O-Rama: sculpt your own figure
Paranoia: dystopian sci-fi roleplaying
Open gaming

AFTERNOON: 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Cavemaster: prehistoric roleplaying game
5150: Star Army: sci-fi land combat
By This Axe I Rule: fantasy miniatures
Open gaming

EVENING: 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Bethorm: new Tekumel roleplaying game from Jeff Dee
5150: Star Navy: spaceship miniatures
Open gaming

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Classic Traveller Childhood Charts

Classic Traveller homebrewing continues. Given my abiding love for using background charts to signal things about the tone and feel of a campaign it was inevitable that I would start tinkering with background charts in the game that inspired that mania in the first place. Pre-career childhood and adolescent charts were a natural full circle.

Crowdsourcing being the omnibenevolent Kirby space god that has never failed me, I would love to hear suggestions for more entries as I'd love to extend this list to a good old-fashioned d66 chart. Anything to add, brain trust?

“The People of My Homeworld Tend to Be...” Chart
Roll 3d6, 1d3 times (d6 divided by two and rounded up). If the same result is rolled double any mechanical effects that may apply, otherwise re-roll. Results dictating class background give the option to roll on one of the results of the player or Ref's choice. Re-roll contradictory results—if desired.

Maladjusted Space Reavers
Blade combat or Brawling 1. +1 to enlist in Other or Pirates. -1 SOC.
+1 to enlist in Navy, Scouts, or Merchants. Pilot 0
+2 to enlist in Merchants. +1 INT, -1 SOC
Dirt-Farming Colonists
-1 EDU or -1 SOC, +1 STR
The “Undeserving” Poor
Streetwise 1, -2 SOC.
Fat and Wealthy
+1 SOC or +2000 CR. -1 DEX
Warlike Savages
+2 enlist Barbarians, +1 Army. Blade combat 1. EDU -2
Hollow-Boned, Zero-G lovers
-1 STR, -1 DEX. Vacc Suit 1
High-Gravity Dwarves
+1 STR or END. -1 DEX
Gun Nuts
Gun Combat 1. -1 INT
+1 EDU, -1 END
Decadently Civilized
+1 SOC, -1 EDU
Crazed Religious Fanatics
- 1 INT, +1 END
- 1 random stat, +1 random stat.
Secret Psi-Lovers
+2 to a Psionic Strength roll
Tech Scavengers
Mech 1, -1 SOC

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A "Late Vancian" Spell for Your Old School Game

A little content follow-up (the first of several) to this post about my desire for some “Late Vancian” indirect magic.

Summon and Bind Minor Sandestin
Magic-User Level 2
Range: 10'
Duration: Special

Yonder are the stones! I seized them while she bathed. I suggest that you send a sandestin to replace them with the false stones. If you hurry, there is still time; the Murthe dallies at her toilette.”
- Jack Vance, Rhialto the Marvellous

Now I am more settled, and I no longer try to fathom fairy logic. Someday, if you like, I will explain the difference between fairy magic and sandestin magic, which is used by most magicians.”
- Jack Vance, Madouc

Sandestins of lesser-stature are summoned and bound by casting this spell formula as part of a ritual. Ritual materials fluctuate in cost at 1d4 x 100 gp. Only one sandestin can be bound into service for each five levels of the mage.

Once per day the sandestin can be called upon to act as Unseen Servant. Once a week it will also produce the effect of an extra first-level spell (this spell must be specified before the session begins). Once a month it will produce an extra second-level spell (again this must be specified beforehand).

As perennially lazy creatures sandestins are constantly seeking to "work to rule". At the beginning of a session the DM should secretly rolls 4d6 against the magic-users INT (this roll can be modified to reflect good/bad roleplaying by the player as it wheedles and negotiates with the sandestin). If the roll is above the INT score roll a d6 the following mishap chart:

Escapes. The sandestin finds a loophole in their contract and breaks free. The magic user must attempt to summon and bind a new sandestin.
Major Bending. The sandestin has managed to find a work around its spell obligations almost completely. No second-level spells can be cast. First level spells are ignored by the sandestin or on a roll of 1 on a d4 attempt be reversed in effect, double back on the caster, or ignored. As an Unseen Servant the sandestin may lie and not complete tasks if out of eye shot
Minor Bending. No second-level spells can be cast. As an Unseen Servant the sandestin may lie and not complete tasks if out of eye shot.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Google Plus Epicenter Shift

Almost a year ago, I asked the open question about whether Google Plus would overtake rpg blogs and forums in significance. I deliberately framed the question polemically—at the time I didn't think they would so much as supplement them.

But that was then this is now.

Do I think G+ will overtake forums and blogs for DIY rpg hobbyists? In some ways, it already has. This draft post has been sitting in around for over three months and it's quite clear witnessing recent threads like this that there is a shifting of the tectonic plates for a number of us.

To be sure there's a whole lot of old school (and just about any other school) gaming going on over there. I run the Hill Cantons there once a week for a group of 12 core players (idiosyncratically called the Nefarious Nine) and a larger floating group of “guest stars”. I've run numerous sessions of Empire of the Petal Throne, TSR Conan, Boot Hill and now even a (mostly) weekly Traveller mini-campaign. And importantly for a guy usually stuck being a GM, played in any number of other people's campaigns. Previously I had been playing with my home group about once a month, now I play roughly twice a week.

But it's the discussion—the over-arching conversation that shapes this side of our hobby—that strikes me as having shifted. Most obviously a certain range of discussion-focused or more casual topics has almost entirely ported over for a number of us—direct queries, half thoughts about the effects of house rules

So what's the balance sheet? Is this a good or bad trend? Unfortunately like most things in adult life it's not either/or but a mixed development. To wit from personal perspective:

All That is Solid... Longtime readers will remember how much I bemoaned the content on a blog that just floats away into the ether. This is even more pronounced in G+ with it's lack of robust archiving and the nature of the conversation. With many people in your circles things will in a space of hours slip right off your feed.

I have, however, found that setting up discrete special pages on G+ for the Hill Cantons and the Space Cantons has helped ameliorate that somewhat by giving a space to share campaign news, special items, maps, and the rest of the content that a campaign builds up.

Home Group Blues. Adult life being what it is, it's been hard to keep my face-to-face group going. Frankly the supreme ease of the Hangout games which I can play at night during the week means disincentives me somewhat to stretch to make time. And that's a loss as the virtual gaming is at best 80 percent as satisfying as face-to-face and I miss my friends here in San Anto.

Content Depth. Linked to the flighty nature of the content on G+ I notice that my own posts there tend to lack the considered depth that they do here on the blog. For instance the longer, more considered analysis pieces like that of this week, simply do not come to me there.

Walled Garden. The G+ discussion is not a broadcast one. It is only semi-open and highly-selective. This can and does have positive effects as mutually-selective social organization often do but it is inherently a more inward-looking scene.

Dynamic conversations. I enjoy the back and forth between readers and me here, but there is a certain stilted quality about the discussion. It feels sometimes more like the question and answer session following a lecture than it does a real conversation. My discussions on G+ however do and as such they tend to generate way more discussion (commenting there even on links to blog posts is routinely 3-8 times more frequent in quantity there)--and the frequent, interesting tangents feel more like the zig zags of real conversation.

Tighter, trust-based community. Again while the medium is a walled garden, this does have advantages. I have built deeper relationships with people based in actual play and repeat content—and they are for the most part people with distinct, real discernable identities. This works wonders in weeding out the anonymous idiots and pathological elements that the Internet is infamous for (though it can still produce it's fair share of idiocy too).

More egalitarian and fluid. One doesn't have to be a first and second-tier blogger to have real voice in those discussions. I like the leveling on principle, but it also brings forth some voices that are truly interesting. I have also noticed that it tends to encourage new folks to write more themselves.

More cross-fertilization. I feel like I see and understand more about other people's campaigns and thought processes from discussions there—and this inspires and influences me. Likewise discussions on books have opened up all kind so new authors for me. Big plus.

Open World gaming. FLAILSNAILS and Constantcon more broadly have meant that many of our game worlds have become increasingly networked together in a larger multiverse, a virtual return to a an old, fascinating style of play—and a HolyGrail for me.

It's about the play, stupid. We write, breathe, and talk about gaming, so shouldn't this just be the ultimate metric? I play now not just more frequently but with a wider range of people scattered across the world.

So neither entirely positive nor negative, but I feel looking over the list that the positive outcomes tip the balance that way. The negatives ensure that I will continue to blog—if a bit less obsessively—to continue to develop content here on the blog.

How are you feeling about this? Do you see a similar trend? What's your balance sheet look like?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

AD&D's Apocalypse and Hereafter

When the Invoked Devastation came upon the Baklunish, their own magi brought down the Rain of Colorless Fire in a last terrible curse, and this so affected the Suloise Empire as to cause it to become the Sea of Dust.”
- World of Greyhawk (1980)

And no bells tolled and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death...And people said and believed, 'this is the end of the world.'”
- Agnolo Tura of Siena (mid-14th century)

I've circled around the margins of theme before—as have a few others—but there is a heady whiff of apocalypse in old school D&D. It's seen not just in the rather obvious stock elements--the countless ruins, the lost artifacts, the former sprawl of civilization lost to the wilds—but hard-coded throughout the rules proper whenever broad human society is involved.

The closer in I go with this AD&D exegesis the more I see this perspective reinforced in spades.

Let's get started by bouncing back to an unlikely place, the Encounters section of the DMG (Appendix C) to pick apart a peculiar section on outdoor encounters (pages 182-183).

Civilization: A Thin Red Line
For starters you get smacked over the head with how desperate life must be even inside the few “inhabited” zones of the implied world. For you see with every encounter rolled in such areas, there is a full 25% chance that the random encounter table should be utterly ignored and a patrol encountered instead.

And by patrol we are not talking about a small group of muddling watch or a handful of tax collectors/wardens, we are talking armed-to-the-teeth, recon in force. Such patrols are always lead by a fairly formidable leader, a fighter or ranger of a whopping 6-8th level, who has a lieutenant of 4-5th level and a sergeant of 2-3rd level (and this doesn't add in the 40% chance of a 6-7th level cleric and a 60% chance of a 5-8th level magic user). Even the enlisted men are tough, three to four alone being 1st level veterans sprinkled among a further 13-24 men-at-arms. All patrol fighters with levels have plate armor, mounts, and an arsenal of weapons. Even the grunts are humping chain (and scale at the worst).

The sheer frequency of meeting such heavily-powered up bands—hell even a mid-level party would find the standard issue patrol of normal men a tough go--inside the settled environs sends a strong message that this is a world right on the knife's edge.

Not only is civilization an obsessively-patrolled armed camp, it is also damn sparse.

The section counsels a DM who hasn't keyed out settlements to use the random terrain charts in Appendix B to do so. These speak wonders about how low the population density is: there's only a 16% chance per “area” (a mile is suggested) of a settlement of any kind. And 16 percent chance breaks down further with the highest chances being a single dwelling, a tiny thorpe/hamlet, or a ruin.

Compare that to 12th century Britain--which even though it's population density was less than half France's of the time—was still around 40 people to each square mile.

Yet if it isn't the12th century, it could be more the cataclysmic mid-14th century. Much like the mass sorcerous devastations of Greyhawk, bubonic plague depopulated Europe to an unprecedented degree—and along with the long wars and other disruptions of that period--unlocked a massive social and political disintegration.

Foissart, a contemporary chronicler, famously said “a third of the world died.” Modern estimates of a 50-60% mortality rate in Europe incredibly make that an understatement.

Whatever the death count, the breakdown of the old order is (relatively) well-documented. Here's Tuchman's Distant Mirror again; “Hill farms and sections of poor soil were let go or turned to pasture for sheep which required less labor. Villages weakened by depopulation...were deserted in increasing numbers. Property boundaries vanished when fields reverted to wasteland. Landowners impoverished by these factors sank out of sight or let castles and manors decay while they entered the military brigandage that was to be the curse of the following decades.”
The Lost Edge 
Ok so if the DMG establishes that post-breakdown civilization is sparsely-inhabited garrison states, the very next section in the DMG oddly implies that the wilderness seems to be reasonably stocked out with fortified outposts. For every encounter in the wilderness there is a 1 in 20 chance that each and every random encounter will be superseded by bumping into...a fortress of all things.

And all these fortresses are not rinky-dink little palisaded affairs on the whole. There is a full on 45% chance that they are at least stout stone-walled medium-sized castles (large shell keeps and small or medium walled castles with keeps) and a further 20% chance of it being a large fortress of some kind.

The Inhabitants sub-chart clears up the mystery, these scattered sites are the markers for where humanity lost the fight with entropy--or is barely holding the walls.

See now 45% of the all the small forts are completely deserted (30% for medium and 15% large). Monsters inhabit a further 15-25% of the time. “Humans” (social “monsters” again, bandits, beserkers, dervishes with a full 60% chance of them being brigands) are encountered 10-20%. Only in the remaining minority of the time is the fortress held by the ruling name-level characters we would expect.

While there is much here to mine again about AD&D's domain-play, I will rest that thread for another time, but I think you get a sense of what I am going for here.

AD&D's isn't just a hard-fought world that merely experienced the fall of great empires centuries before, it's one where humanity came close to the abyss in the recent past—and has stayed there. It's on that stage of pure chaos that player-character, the rootless opportunists knocked out of the fabric of society, find themselves adventuring in.  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What the Hired Help Say About Ruling the Gygaxian Implied World

“Who built the seven towers of Thebes? 
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed,
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima's houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go?”
-Bertolt Brecht

Remember my series exploring the scattershot (yet more far more comprehensive and interesting than is normally given) domain-level play and implied world in first edition AD&D? Longtime readers may remember that I had a few more posts lined up that I never really finished off, posts that have continued to nag me despite me having them buried like the tell-tale heart deep in the drafts box. (You can read the whole series here, here, here, and here.)

Hark! Louder, louder, louder. Argh. I dissemble no more, tear up the planks and let's finish this long due series.

Let's come back around with some Talmudic readings of the section on Hirelings in the DMG (p. 28-31), a section that yields quite a bit of information on what the AD&D domain game and implied world is.

Working Stiffs and the Making of Things
The section on hirelings explicitly begins—with the first sentence—in the context of domain-play and the power arc of the AD&D character: “Most hirelings are dealt with under the section entitled EXPERT HIRELINGS - those which are typically employed at such time as the character in question has an established stronghold. Common, standard hirelings are basically the usual craftsmen or laborers taken on by lower level player characters.”

That's clear and straightforward: one entire class of hirelings revolves around life in a stronghold, the other is more the straightforward useful hacks for adventuring.

A quick look at Standard Hirelings seems to hold this view you have the porters, teamsters, and pack handlers that deal with the copious (and mightily heavy with coinage at 1/10th a pound) amounts of swag being hauled out of murderholes. You have linkboys to free up your torch arm for that Fauchard-Fork and perhaps a valet to shine your boots, high, hard. These stiffs are easy to come by (most if not all can be found in your average village) and mostly work in short stints of work paid by the day.

But now this is where things get (somewhat) interesting. This is where there are hints at a “middle game,” a sort of higher-level play where a character hasn't gone through that long, tough process of carving their hold in this post-apocalyptic AD&D world but has resources enough to start acting on a larger social scale.

Because, see, the Standard Hirelings list is not just the adventuring-specific mooks above, but includes a broader range of semi-skilled and skilled artisans. So you have carpenters, leather workers, painters (limners), and tailors too. Significantly you can hire all these hirelings at a monthly scale but this “assumes that quarters are provided for the hireling, and that these quarters contain a bed and like necessities.” It assumes further that you actually possess a base of operations.

More over it sets up a freeform way to handle production of goods:
“It is not practical to try to determine the time and expenses necessary to accomplish everything possible for the scores of standard hirelings possible to employ, so each DM will have to decide. For example, assume that a player character hires a tailor to make plain blue cloaks for all of his or her henchmen. This will take only about 1 day per garment and cost the stated amount of money plus 5 c.p. (10% of the cost of a cloak) per cloak for materials. However, if the same cloaks were to be fashioned of a material of unusual color and have some device also sewed upon them, time and materials costs would be at least double standard, and probably more.”

That first sentence strikes me as a great example of the overall design philosophy of that edition--a sweet spot for me. It acknowledges the near-infinite imaginative possibilities of each individual campaign and implies that the hireling list (and the following production rules) are just guiding models and that you can and should be specifically tailoring lists of such working folks to your own quirks. Black lotus powder distillers? Pleasure barge shipbuilders? Sure here you go, here's a detailed example/baseline for their wages and what you charge the players.

Spun a different way, this whole subsection is toolbox support for the level of owning a creaky old caravel, running a scurrilous hole-in-the-wall tavern, squatting a cleared-out mini-dungeon, raising the standard of your own free company, or any other thing that I remember being a big post-lower level goal of our play groups as a kid.

And despite the ostensibly more-comprehensive approach to domain-play of the other best attempts of D&D editions from the Companion set to Birthright, AD&D alone is the sole attempt in the game to orient such a specific, granular approach to work and working people.

There is no beancounter automatic table of population growth. To entice these folks to said base the player actually has to put some effort into it, “if the offer is for long term employment, only 1 in 6 will be willing to accept unless a small bonus is offered--day's wage is too small, but double or treble that is sufficient to make 3 in 6 willing to take service.” The implication being that you have to hustle and bribe normal folks (to get over their fears, I suppose) and leave the walled confines of beleaguered civilization.

It's not abstractions like “peasant families” and “domain levels” producing things in the Gygaxian world, but NPCs with at least some identity and face. Frankly, that's a game-world vision I find more human scale and interesting.

Onwards and upwards, next we look at how these sections imply certain things about urban life, guild work, the life of mercenaries, general handwaving of duller aspects of domain-play, etc. Stay tuned.