Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Hill Cantons Bestiary: Wereshark

Read as literature J. Eric Holmes' novella The Maze of Peril is fairly awful, but a read of the book as a window into the pulpy, exuberant kitchen-sink D&D of that good doctor it is supremely enjoyable. One of my favorite sections of the book occurs in a large underworld lake dominated by a pyramid-temple of Dagon.

After the protagonists loot the fishy demonic temple, they are confronted...
“Out of the black waters of the underground lake rose a triangular dorsal fin. The creature would have been immediately recognizable as a huge shark except for the thick muscular arms and hands with which it drew itself up upon the rocks. As the entire body became visible, the startled adventurers could see humanoid legs and bare feet supporting the fish-like tail.”

Totemic beast cults—and their shape-shifting devotees--have run old in the Hill Cantons history, so I knew I had to have one for my campaign. Thus was born Andimachus, the wereshark cousin-antagonist of the resident godling of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, the Master. Following are the stats I did for that game (he has been dispatched in a near-thing by the players long ago).


No. Enc.:
1d4 (1d4)
Chaotic (Evil)
120’ (on land)/180' (water)
Armor Class:
Hit Dice:
2 (bite, clawed arms)
2d6, 1d4, 1d4

Old salts will tell you of the subtle signs of the human-formed wereshark: a slight greyness of skin, a deadened, hard cast to the eye, a hint of razor among the teeth, a tendency to take positions in the banking guilds.

The monsterish version is inescapable obvious, rearing a full 8-foot tall with the pronounced snout of a shark, sharp-toothed grin, dorsal fin and muscular clawed arms. They are as fleet in the water as their fishy brethren. In this form they can only be harmed by silver or magical weapons.

Despite their bestial rapaciousness weresharks are drawn to soft luxuries in their off hours. Treasure hoards inevitably will take the form of soft, exquisitely-woven silks, velvet cushions, choice wines, fine silver dinnerware, and the like as opposed to straight cash.

Those unfortunates bitten by the wereshark will themselves become victim to lycanthropy on a 30% chance (remove curse to lift). On a full moon—at high tide—there is a 90% chance that the victim will transform into his new form and seek out others of his kind in the murky depths.  

Monday, April 22, 2013

Campaign Hooks and News for the Ruinscrawl

Putting my money where my proverbial mouth is I have been busily pimping out a ruinscrawl (the second part of the series will be posted tomorrow). Fortunately the players have been headquartered in the half-ruined metropolis of Kezmarok, I can shoehorn in such adventures a scant and convenient half-mile from their own base of operation (a convent itself a rehabbed ruin).

Much of High Kezmarok (that's the northern, elevated part of the city on the crappy players map below) is sparsely inhabited at best, with whole sections completely given over to the various stages of ruination I wrote about the other day.

While I am limiting the pointcrawl portion to only the Farwest ward mentioned in the hooks below for the time being, the large scale of the city (a massiveness compounded by the vertical expansiveness of the undercity beneath its streets) still gives me a fairly large area to work my map with: a space roughly 500 yards by 700 yards. Many of the boulevards marked on the map will be translated directly into “double line” connections for the map. The 100-yard squares (you may be able to faintly discern if you squint really hard) translate nicely into discrete points.

But now the news...
Noting continuing fears of High Kezmarok's shabby gentility and licensed squatter leagues that the magnificent ruined piles of Farwest ward have slipped irrevocably into the Weird, work crews have finished construction of retaining walls blocking access to the ward's radials. Resting a hand on the eight-foot-high recycled-stone barricade at the dedication ceremony, the Lord Warden assured citizens that the “wearers of skin, night hags, demi-liches,  and other such otherworldy riff-raff will now be kept at bay.”

Defiantly taking note of the official abandonment of Farwest, Zax, the sybarite heir of the Despot of Ma'arb, has posted a 2000 gold sun bounty for anyone “man--or desperate--enough” to escort his ruins-porn party to the Great Aviary looming over the center of that benighted district. 

The newly-anointed Decade-King Uloysalik IX continues to create a furrowing of brows and a clucking of nervous tongues throughout the hostel-salons of Kezmarok. Declining to retreat to the customary seclusion of his predecessors and wait out a gloriously decadent 10-year revelry before his inevitable ritual deposement (and blinding), the new ceremonial head of state has cheekily gone as far as to issue wallposter proclamations.

Among the king's first announcements was a celebratory festival tomorrow honoring the heroes and heroines of the Battle of the Twelve Guns, the decisive engagement that is “so last year” in the minds of the fickle Kezmaroki crowd. Citing costs of repairing the outer wall, reworking the attendant mountains of paperwork, and of course the annual goal of keeping high municipal officials salaries “competitive”, the Council of Autarchs has met the proclamation with an “alternative, supplementary budget.” The new budget generously resites the festival grounds from the Plaza of the Five Banners and main radial boulevards to the Adamantine Room, a cozy chamber secured from assailants under the palace scullery and behind a locked back staircase. 

To date the other wallposters that bear the albino catoblepas seal of the monarch have been general exhortations like "the Turko Fey are only great because we lie on our knees, ARISE!" and a vague program for the "aesthetic and martial" training of adolescent age natives. All the posters are illustrated in vivid colors in a style we would call "agitprop."

Friday, April 19, 2013

Pointcrawling Urban Ruins, Part One

A few weeks back, I kibitzed about my difficulties in running city and town ruins. I have had a lingering problem make that awkward scale between the micro-environs of a dungeon and the macro-handwavingness of wilderness work just right. Readers both here on the blog and on Google Plus (oh why Google did you have to screw up integrating the comments between both streams so very, very badly?) chimed in with extraordinarily useful advice from their own campaigns.

The following two-part series is my own attempt to wrap my brain around a better way to run these kinds of adventure locales in the future (and of course reflects some of the best practices of many of you who responded).

The first major hurdle was getting over the scale problems. Naturally given one of my running themes here (and here) and the need to abstract some of the larger-scale movement outside discrete buildings in the ruins, my brain went back to stretching the pointcrawl to fit. In today's installment I will deal with a quick system to classify broad ruin types, travel among points, deal with encounters and create a large-scale map to make sense of it all.

Taking my individual points I began to think of them as roughly corresponding to a neighborhood or ward area, an approximate area maybe incorporating one to three hundred yards on a side. Because I don't want to overproduce detail that won't be used in actual play I am overall aiming for a hierarchy of maps with detail by potential party interest-level.

I will assign standard-size graph paper map at a 10 yard per square scale to each point--depending on how interesting each square is. A dull point say for something like a rubble field will only really serve as way-point and may not have a breakout map at all. A typical area may have a single-page map with a few choice sites mapped out (and further broken down into a 10-foot square scale maps if especially interesting). A locale-rich point may even have two or three maps in the smaller 10-foot scale.

Because I want quick and dirty ways to classify and describe points when the party moves between them I came up with a color-coded method that borrows heavily from Runequest's excellent Big Rubble.

Ruin Types
Type 1 (Red). Completely ruined or razed area, walls and other structures indistinguishable and now just rubble.

Type 2 (Orange). Completely ruined areas. Surface areas nearly identical to Type 1 above (with occasional free-standing walls), but underground areas (cellars, dungeons and the like) may still be intact if rubble is cleared away.

Type 3 (Yellow). Mostly ruined area. Some may walls exist and structures may be distinct but nearly always lack roofs and upper stories. Underground areas may be existent.

Type 4 (Green). Semi-ruined area. A number of structures are relatively intact with roofs and walls (though there may be holes in both). The relatively intact structures will be interspersed with rubble or partially ruined buildings. Underground areas are often existent.

Type 5 (Blue) Barely ruined area. Most structures in the area are intact with minor neglect. Will often be inhabited with recent repairs done by sentient locals.
Now let's move on to our connections. You will note that because of the relatively more open nature of outdoor ruins (than say an undercity or megadungeon) that I add more connections than usual between points. Connections are assumed to be represent 30 minutes of travel in a small-sized ruined (town and the like), an hour in a medium-sized one (small city), two hours in a large (medium city), and four in a massive one (metropolis and the like).

Obviously some factors will scale travel time up and down, so I have characterized the connections with a few relevant conditions below (and for color when describing travel to players).

Connection Types
Dotted Line. Movement is relatively free and often over a field of rubble.

Broken Line. Movement is difficult, perhaps only through thickly-rubbled and ruined roads. Double movement time.

Single Line. Small streets that may have an occasional obstruction.

Double Line. Open avenues, boulevards or obstruction-free roads. Halve movement time.

Questions? Suggestions?

In the next part I will deal with encounters, some mechanics for randomly generating interesting buildings and their contents, and some assorted other whoha.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Teaching Monsters with Exquisite Corpses

Last week, I had my fantasy creative writing class take up one of those big ticket items in good speculative fiction: imaginative monsters.

Since nothing will ruin a good fantasy more than a dully-imagined monster—ok, ok dully imagined anything, but bear with me—we spent a good solid two hours messing around with a few ways to free up their imagination.

Hour One: The Exquisite Corpse
I set the classroom up talking about historical bestiaries, those great, colorful catalogues of creatures strange that issued forth from the intellectual fog-of-war of the medieval mind. Thumbing through a slideshow of images from the Physiologus, the Aberdeen Bestiary, the Queen Mary Psalter, and other works of the time we discussed how many of the most fantastical creatures were composite monsters drawing from a combination of 2-4 different animals.

Then we got down to the hands-on exercise. I handed out pairs of index cards instructing them to draw a front and rear half of any animal or monster they could think of with an eye to having them mostly line up to about an inch and half in the center (and labeling each half for reference). After all had drawn 2-4, we collected up the cards randomly shuffling them into front and rear decks. I then had the kids draw them one by one, naming them and assigning characteristics and fell powers to each as we went.

The resulting list was fairly hilarious. We had the dreaded Pigama, a piranha-headed hog with its razor sharp teeth and wallowing, nudging up to the snobby snake-dog hybrid Snog and the poison-farting Snalf. Striking the proverbial iron in its heated state, I had them write them up and people their own budding worlds which has compounded since with a flood of ever-stranger fauna.

All in all an enjoyable exercise that can certainly be carried over into monster creation for a fantasy rpg campaign.

Next up, a run-down in the second hour of building clay monsters and fighting them out in our classroom arean. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Curious Cosmology of “Holmesian” Alignment

The other day Deep Evan asked me why I have a personal preference for the five-fold alignment of Holmes Basic. Because asking a blogger a direct question is free license to do a self-indulgent post I have obliged my own ego to answer the question here.

While the meat of the answer is perhaps disappointingly dull--pure irrational, rosy-tinted nostalgia—I do have some rather elaborate post-facto rationalizations for why I still use it in the campaign.

But first let's back up and talk about the short, cut-down-in-the glory-of-its-prime history of this alignment scheme. Rearing its head in the blue book of the late 1970s, five-fold alignment as per the book (Holmes, Basic D&D page 8) is a gloriously opaque and mystifying cosmic arrangement. Good and Evil were readily grokable: the eternal “us” and “them” of the American mind, Law and Chaos to one unfamiliar at the time with Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock slightly less (but the names evoked great ideas), their axial interaction even more unclear.

That it was all illustrated with a graph that placed unfamiliar monster types made it seem all the more inexplicable (“ok so, teleporting dogs equal the good kind of law and dragons made of brass are chaotic and good, got it”). Its vagueness left me filling the void with strange and open-ended whimsy in what it all meant.

Of course time spent around the endless (yet enjoyable) exegesis of the OSR has rudely disabused me of my naivete. It's fairly clear from remarks in Dragon #52 that the good doctor never intended to have this alignment scheme at all, preferring instead the traditional three-points of OD&D. The new scheme was presumably added as a bridge to AD&D which was being introduced piecemeal at the time.

The other piece that I find interesting is that five-fold alignment appears to not have just been a truncated and simplified presentation of the nine-point, pain-in-the-ass alignment that all right-minded people loathe and despise, but likely the “first draft” of what alignment was supposed to be in AD&D circa 1976. Evidence for this can be found in Gary Gygax's article in Strategic Review (Vol 2, #1) where he presents the expansion beyond the Law-Chaos arrangement.

This article is fascinating because it presents a number of interesting concepts, mostly dropped or radically changed as the game developed. The most immediately noticeable is the concept of alignment not as a static either/or but as a great spectrum of thought and behavior. Races and individuals are all being pushed and pulled along the two radials outward toward the cosmic realms (you can see here with borderline places like Nirvana and Limbo best the beginnings of nine-fold and the outer plane cosmology of later years).
Scan from Strategic Review (Vol 2, #1)

Your alignment is purely a matter of which of the four quadrants you rest in your vector at a particular time. In fact over time this can even mean that a “player-character who continually follows any alignment (save neutrality) to the absolute letter of its definition must eventually move off the chart...and into another plane of existence as indicated.” One can thus be more chaotic or more evil than even another in the same alignment and that you can evolve into a divine/infernal being if you go so far. Wild.

There are a few more fascinating quirks laid out here about the implied cosmology of D&D worlds at that time. Law seems to be an artifact of human civilization for instance, “Humanity most of humanity falls into the lawful category, and most of lawful humanity lies near the line between good and evil. With proper leadership the majority will be prone towards lawful/good. Few humans are chaotic, and very few are chaotic and evil.”

Strangely (and I am still parsing this out mentally) humanity's “mythical and mythos” gods are creatures of chaos the “benign ones will tend towards the chaotic/good, and chaotic/evil will typify those gods which were inimical towards humanity.”

Couple that with the inclusion of Heaven and Saints as the embodiment of Lawful Good and Hell and the Devils as that of Lawful Evil and you have a weirdly bifurcated cosmology between a Christian-like lawful (though dually opposed) overworld and a “everything else” chaotic overworld.
Scan from Strategic Review (Vol 2, #1)
That clerics all must either “remain completely good or totally evil, although lateral movement might be allowed...with or without divine retribution” boggles my mind especially since Gygax states explicitly that the gulf between good and evil is greater than that between law and chaos. Does it imply that the (perhaps solitary) LG “God” tolerates the “pagan” CG gods (and vice versa) in their mutual struggle against the LE “Devil” and the host of demonic gods of CE? Is it a great cosmic kitchen sink battle like the Lord of Hosts teams up with Thor to whip on Old Scratch and Cthulhu? Or what?

Neutral is a glorious muddle (naturally called “self-explanatory by Gygax). My read is that it's not all about the cosmic balance (a very lawful, orderly concept in my opinion) of later years but more of a gray-shaded place of “moral” ambivalence (with a relative tendency toward one of the poles). Druids, the only human clergy acknowledged to inhabit this spot, have a wonderfully non-granola write-up here: “Druids serve only themselves and nature, they occasionally make human sacrifice [my emphasis], but on the other hand they aid the folk in agriculture and animal husbandry. Druids are, therefore, neutral—although slightly predisposed towards evil actions.”

How does that relate to the Hill Cantons campaign?

Well in keeping with my pretensions and distaste for alignment to be anything but a vague backdrop in actual play, five-fold alignment appears as humanity's limited, warped, half-right theoretical view (or ontology if you want to get really high-falutin') of how the HC cosmos works. That cosmos is dominated by the tension between the deadly-dull, seemingly-stable, and entirely-human Corelands and the dream logic of the Weird (full bullshit exposition here).

The power of the Corelands somewhat maps toward the lawful, though Lawful Good is mostly an aspirational ideal of the monotheistic followers of the Sun Lord with the lion share of the conniving, self-serving actual mass of humanity solidly “neutral” (or at best borderline, softly lawful evil or good) especially in the borderlands. And while much of the otherworldliness of the Weird maps to the Chaos side of the chart—and much that is inimical there to the Chaotic and Evil—not all of it is there. Because it represents dream logic—perhaps it even being a feverish projection of the human mind—there are also authoritarian distortions like the Eld who can only be described as Lawful Evil.

Confused yet? Well good, because that's the take-home message. Why I enjoy and appreciate five-fold alignment is that was poorly-explained, briefly-used concept that existed between the simplicity of three fold and the overly-explained, too much-tied in with the later orthodoxy of the Outer Planes whoha of nine-fold alignment (and thanks Dennis for articulating this). And it's in that sweet, ambivalent, underwritten spot between classical elegance and baroque excess that I enjoy filling in the blank spots with my own over-wrought silliness.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Kiddie OD&D Hack

The creative writing class disguised asa fantasy worldbuilding class I have been teaching at a local progressive school has been humming along now for a couple months. Not terribly surprisingly it only took a month before I had them playing some D&D. The kids, also perhaps not surprisingly, have been one of the weirdest (I say that with pride), most anarchic, out-of-the-box play groups I have ever had the pleasure of running.

What follows are the stripped-down OD&D hack rules I have been using. The level of detail is just about right I have found for the youngest in the classroom (9 years-old) but a wee bit lacking for the oldest (11). Big solid thank you to the crowdsourcing peanut gallery on Google Plus that helped me fill out the whimsical random starting equipment, a big hit with the kids.

The Circle School Fantasy Game

Roll Up Your Abilities
Roll 3d6 in order. Swap any one for another one.

Brawn: How big and burly (or weak) you are.
Knowledge: How much you know (education and brain capacity).
Speed: How quick and fast (or slow) you are.
Charm: How charming or good looking you are.

Hit Points: How much damage you can take. At zero you are “knocked out.” See below for how many points you get.

Who You Can Be
Pick one class choice from below. All characters advance one level after successfully completing an adventure (2-3 class sessions).
Hero: 2d6 hit points, hits as 4th level OD&D Fighter
Superhero: 4d6 hit points, hits as 8th level Fighter
Champion: 6d6 hit points, hits as 12th level Fighter

Mage: 1d6 hit points, 2 spells, hits as 4th level OD&D MU
Wizard: 2d6 hit points, 3 spells, hits as 8th level MU
Arch-Wizard: 3d6 hit points, 4 spells, hits as 12th level MU

What You Get
Bag of Food

Magic Users
Staff, Club, Nunchucks or Knife
Styling Cloak, Robe, or Hat

Magic User Spells (pick two)
Sleep (same as Sleep)
Charm (same as Charm Person or Monster)
Shapechange (Polymorph Self)
Big Firey Explosion (Fire Ball)
Heal (Cure 3d6 hit points)

Warrior (pick one)
A. Leather Armor, Magic Bow and Arrows
B. Chainmail, Magic Sword or Axe
C. Platemail, Sword, Lance, Shield and Horse

Special Stuff Chart (Roll Once on Each Table)
  1. Talking Animal Friend (Non-Annoying)
  2. Mean Old Beast of a Pet
  3. A Long Silk Rope (60 feet)
  4. Vial of Angel Tears
  5. Big Wheel of Cheese
  6. Silver Mirror (Vampires won't appear)
  7. Painted wooden duck decoy
  8. Straw broom
  9. Metal bucket full of fresh strawberries
  10. Pair of stilts
  11. Hand saw
  12. set of jugglers pins
  13. horse head mask
  14. big ball of yarn and some knitting needles.
  15. leather poncho
  16. wicker basket full of dead harmless (but live) snakes
  17. A pet goat
  18. A loyal follower: An aging woodcutter
  19. A not so loyal follower: A village cutpurse
  20. A loyal follower: A slightly loco milkmaid who thinks herself a viking.

  1. A taxidermied owl
  2. A small wooden box of broken glass shards
  3. A double ended battle-shovel from a drunken dwarf smith.
  4. A brass teakettle
  5. A jack in the box
  6. A pouch of 20 palm sized perfect skipping stones
  7. Magic Chopsticks
  8. A map scribbled on a nakpin
  9. A book of poetry in a language they can't read
  10. A fist-sized crystal that glows a warm amber.
  11. A snake-shaped ring that can respond to yes/no questions.
  12. A graven stick with strange designs and slotted ends
  13. A bear/wolfs head headdress
  14. A small silver bell on a string
  15. A roosters claw
  16. A polished brass mirror (no glass)
  17. A pouch of purple sand
  18. A kindly old mentor
  19. A little sidekick (gnome, dwarf, tinkerbell)
  20. Roll Twice More

Misc Rules
All characters can search for hidden items, secret doors or traps by rolling a 1 on a d6.

Other conditional tasks can be done by rolling d20 at or lower than the relevant attribute (pushing a rock would be against your Brawn, a running jump against your Speed, etc.)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

More News from the Cantons

I have noticed a persistent—and highly annoying—paradox in my writing pace since kicking off this blog, namely the busier with real life I am the more I am motivated to write. Even more aggravatingly the obverse holds true too.

This is campaign season for me and by that I mean real world grassroots electioneering. Predictably I have been writing up a storm and one place that I seemed to be spinning out heaping torrents of words has been in writing the weekly campaign news blotter.
Hail the Sun Lord, We have a New Decade-King. 
For those of you not following the Hill Cantons page on Google Plus here are some recent highlights:
Sweet Succoring Sun Lord, it's a red banner day here in Kezmarok today as watchers of the Supernal College of Successors note the smoke and bellows of the albino catoblepas immolating on its gilded pyre [How oddly parallel that this news thread started months before this world's papal conclave] signifying the anointment of the new Decade King. Bizarrely the candidate field was narrowed down in the final days to twin “dark hippogriff” candidate-brothers,Uloysa and Vdelko. While Aloysa was the one who ultimately triumphed, some observers believe that the twins have been trading places throughout the ordeal—mystifying and greatly troubling the differing factions backing them. At any rate, our next Golden Excravtor, the Decade-King Uloysalik IX will be coronated with much pomp and circumstance in ten days time as per custom.

The Serene Guild of Seers, Augurs, Runescasters and Wainwrights has issued new rates for its oracular pronouncements. For 4000 suns answers are given in clear, parseable language. 1000 suns will buy answers in cant with an occasional admit of ambiguity. 500 suns will buy you a parable based on the life and work of our dear Sun Lord to be interpreted as you will and 100 suns will buy you babble in an unknown tongue. (Tune in to the G+ page if you are curious how this bit of naked Vancian plagarism turned out.)

The legend of the self-styled northern heroes of last season, the Nefarious Nine, grows with the telling. After routing the dreaded dragon Smok one of their number was clearly seen carrying Fauxbringer, a black-enameled, tipless illegitimate (bastard is such an ugly word) sword carried by Cirl the Petulant, a half-Eld anti-paladin whose extreme maudlin behavior and taste for poetry led him to be cast out of the "Summer Country". Fauxbringer was his only companion in that time and it is said that if the blade is reunited with its tip that it would exhibit powers "less sucky." 

Of the many family-dominated usury guilds to escape the collapse of last decade, the Frazas were among the most infamous in deftly transferring their massive debts back to the public treasuries of the cantonal councils. But long before this, they had accrued notoriety far and wide for another feat: the weaving of the Tapestry of Xvikz. A full two centuries ago, then Frazas family head, Franzoht Fair-Breeched, called on his dark powers to summon and bind the Xvikz, a demon from the darkest, deepest hell of high finance.

A great lover of petty humiliation Franzoht tormented the creature by refusing to put the dreaded demon's powers to appropriate use instead compelling him to weave a great commemorative tapestry from the velvety firmament of the domed heavens. That the required scene was both cloying and derivative only added to the sulk of the demon who plodded away needle point in hand. Years stretched into decades as the demon passively-aggressively refused to finish in a timely manner—and each successive generation of bull-headed Frazas refusing to release the demon in turn led to impasse.

Inexplicably fourteen years ago, Xvikz declared his last stitch sewn. Though the resulting tapestry was horrifically underwhelming, its unveiling was heralded as a major cultural achievement in Overkingdom aesthete circles and became a much-sought fixture of upper crust soirees in the borderlands. The tapestry will be on display this month in Marlankh at the three-day opening gala of the Frazas branch-house.

Now this week quiet word has been spread through underworld circles of a shadowy patron offering a magnificent bounty of 15,000 gold suns for an unimaginably daring crime: stealing the Tapestry of Xvikz out from under the noses of this haughty family.