Where as the Dunes was mythic wilderness presented with the elements of an outdoors pointcrawl, the
Isles are shaping up to be an extra-planar (in this case the alkaline
wastes of the Cold Hell/Anti-Cantons) adventure wrapped up in an
18-point pointcrawl spread over three islands. Pinning it all down
are two dungeon sites (the body-horror Vat Complex and the
stage-facade Pagoda City) that are larger and weirder then the two
tent-pole dungeons of the Dunes.
My writing enthusiasm level has gone
from “tired but still feeling it” to “amped up, get out of my
way motherf*cka.” What's helped is seeing the art develop on both
projects: Jeremy Duncan's inspired grottiness (really a perfect fit for Marlinko) and Luka Rejec's irrepressibly charming and darkly funny work. Seriously on the Hydra
team page I will no sooner finish praising a piece only to find
another piece posted. And I find myself answering Luka's questions about "do the Isles have such and such?" with “they do now.”
I've been really
feeling the wind in my hoary-cliched sails this week.Not only did it
feel good to get the Slumbering Ursine Dunes pdf out early to backers
last week (and on sale at DriveThru), it felt even better to put the
last touches on the draft of the Marlinko city adventure that was the
first stretch goal of the Kickstarter. We had originally imagined it
to be a smallish thing 20 pages as opposed to the 66 pages of the
Dunes but it's already taken on a life of its own and is hitting
around 40 digest-sized pages already.
invigorating about the writing I am finding is that in a long sandbox
campaign you end up with a lot of dead ends or partially-developed
material when the party veers off one way or the other. Having the
excuse and motivation to really dig down into half-baked, left-behind ideas and
places thus feels like a real treat. I never got a chance to really
dig into the city adventures and high weirdness of Marlinko after it
slipped from its place of prominence as the party's home-base roughly
two and change years ago. And now I do.
Anywho here's a
sample of some of what the new material is looking like...
The Four Contradas of Marlinko
Marlinko was built around the squat,
black bulk of the Tomb of the Town Gods, a structure that predates
the rest of the city by an interminably long period of time. The
ominous edifice sitting in its wide, cobblestoned, circular plaza has
retained its position as the dead center of the city. Four wide
avenues radiate from it at the cardinal points and divide the city
into four contradas or quarters.
The four contradas do not reflect
merely a geographic or class division but have deeply embedded
cultural and psycho-geographical lives of their own. Each contrada
organizes its own festivals, keeps its own histories, and pays
fearful homage to the abstract-featured idol of its own unique “town
Each contrada also maintains its own
contrada hall (a large, well-maintained, ceremonial gathering place)
where it keeps a collection of its own unique banners, ceremonial
regalia, historical tapestries, mummies, and most importantly, the
various trophies it has won in the single most important bi-annual
event: the great chariot race that headlines the Ebon Horse Fair.
Throughout the year, contrada trainers keep their chosen condemned
convict-jockey revved up and ready for the Black Race. It is well
that they do for the losers are hanged and the winner takes a trophy
and his freedom!
(Sullen Apiarian) Contrada
The Northwestern Quarter with its great
yellow-and-black beehive and mopey deodand emblazoned banner contains
the greatest concentration of affluence and easy living in the city.
The great painted-plastered town-manses of the wealthy dominate the
coveted plaza and avenue fronts in this part of town.
Despite its wealthy cast, the
contrada has a deeply-ingrained inferiority complex--due in large
part to its century-long losing streak in the Black Race. The loss
has become a self-fulfilling prophesy in recent years with the rash
of suicides of convicts who consider being drafted into service as a
SA jockey to be a death sentence anyway. Roving gangs of youths from
respected families are quick to draw rapiers against any slight as to
compensate for the wound to their civic honor.
Sullen Apiarian “worships” or
placates Anfolf, the vaguely bee-headed town god said to be a
rainmaker and bringer of both wealth and anxiety. When Anfolf in his
glowing golden nimbus walked the streets of early Marlinko impressing
the bearded Pahr immigrants just getting used to lives not spent on
horseback, He was said to literally shower them with the sweetest of
honey--and the swiftest of kicks...
Though it shouts “conspicuous
consumption,” the yellow-limestone and quartz facade of the Sullen
Apiarian contrada hall with its amber and lapis lazuli-encrusted
honeycombed frescoes stands handsomely over its small, tight square.
The contrada society itself is a broad one with a large burgeoning
hierarchy of ceremonial officers arrayed in 27 ranks. Incongruously
the higher, more labor-intensive (and not un-powerful) positions are
held traditionally by the less affluent members of the contrada (or
“temporally-embarrassed grandees” as they like to call
From here each contrada has a key focusing on the interesting and adventurable sites. Each ward description also has their own unique encounter
and random building charts—many of which have triggers and hooks
embedded in the escalating random event system of the Chaos Index.
Encounter charts that have entries like this...
Maus. A wild-eyed paranoid dressed in the long-robed,
woolen hat finery of a rustic boyar. Maus rants and raves at the
characters about the “Axis of Tindrthurn,” a secret postal and
matchmaking service that he claims is trying to kill him. If the
Chaos Level is 6 and over he is correct on all counts.
Traders are bringing back news from the
Persimmon Sea that the bizarre gender-eschewing corsair-sect
that captured and sacked the isolated Himyari isle of Old Szalé last
year has officially declared itself to be the so-called Maraboutic
Republic of Szalé-Byeff. The self-styled “pirate utopia” has
opened its doors to heretics, escaped slaves, and “greys” (mixed
caste rejects from black/white divided Himyar) that swear to its
Triple Code: 1. thou shalt not talk in the coarse dialect of
otherworld cliches; 2. thou shalt not hold to any gender or its
social constructs;and 3. do as thou wilt as long as what thou wilt
isn't the other two things and another vague and ill-defined that
even pirates would find abhorrent.
The Overking himself is said to
be “almost alarmed and concerned” by the disappearance of His
Surveyor-Lord of Canton Departments Both Hilly and Forested, Ropucha
Ragygtzenacht, in the second week of his official tour of the
borderlands. A large detachment of lancers and war wagons from the
Black Army has been sent into Marlinko in a “pacification”
mission against local peasants whose base ways are surely to blame
for the besmirching of the Royal Name.
Despite the official ruckus, the Hill
Cantons and Marlinko city itself seem to be on the economic rebound
following the otherwordly reappearance of most of its major trade
partner, Kezmarok. Marlinko Rada has approved the publication of a
new promotional gazetteer to coincide with its new, somewhat
opaque tourist slogan “come dream ye dreams that die unheard in
dear old Marlinka.”
One of the enduring thought experiments
of this blog has been the pointcrawl, a concept which has passed into
my brain by way of point-to-point wargames and Zork. Though I pose it
as an alternative to hexcrawling in truth at the table for me it's
more of a supplement, filling in and enhancing certain ways of
running large spaces (hey there's probably a post in there). This is the second edition of my own-going annotated index project for the blog.
My first concrete attempt to adapt the
pointcrawl concept to something other than wilderness. The post
presents the known areas of Planescape's Sigil as a single pointcrawl
map. This experiment helped me gel further non-hypothetical
explorations in using pointcrawls to run undercities, megadungeons
and city ruins.
Not only are undercities and
megadungeons monsters of the horizontal dimension they can often
become quite complicated with vertical connections. Here is an
attempt to untangle that (and an experiment that only half-worked at
When you run a blog for several
years--and spend too many years abusing your head as a young man--a terrible thing starts to occur: you start losing touch with
the things you wrote about. It comes way too often these days but
long into gaming-related conversation in a strike of blindingly
internal light I will suddenly find myself thinking “waitttt, didn't I write a
whole mother-flippin' series of blog posts about that three
To stave off that “all that is solid
melts into air” feeling, I've finally started on my
long-procrastinated annotated blog index. As I do each chunk—and
they are pretty much going to follow in the order of what I consider
the best or most useful of the posts here—I will post about
them and add them to a larger index page. Likely next is the long index of pointcrawl and wilderness posts.
First up is one of my favorite (and
neglected) groups of posts: the on-again/off-again interview series.
A series which under pretext of presenting ideas, recollections, and
analysis to a broader audience, selfishly allowed me to dig into the
brains of people I have found interesting or critical to our hobby.
The Interview Series (in
The first interviews on the HC where with Jeff Berry aka Chirine Ba
Kal, a longtime player in M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel campaign and for a
time a mover and shaker in its business end. I had originally reached
out to him with the intention of doing a one-shot little piece on
what the early Tekumel games were actually like. The ongoing
conversation was so incredibly rich with insight and Jeff's memory so
exact in the amounts of detail that it spilled over into several
encores, all of which I still enjoy reading today.
If you pressed me for all my all-time
favorite computer game it would have to be King of Dragon Pass. Not
only was it a near-perfect blend of handpainted art, strategy,
roleplaying and big ticket mythic themes it was set against the
worldbuilding of Glorantha that I love (mostly from afar) so well. A
huge treat to interview David Dunham, creator of the game, and pick
his brain about the connections to KoDP to tabletop roleplaying.
Digging into the altnerative paths that roleplaying could have taken
in the 1960s and 1970s led me to places I had never known about
notably such great “world games” as that of Magira in Germany. An
interview with one of its participants.
Looking back at this interview three years ago which focuses on Jeff
Dee's then beginning drive to get his Tekumel rpg published, it makes
to happy to see that it is not only sitting on my shelf right now but
is helping re-raise the flag of Tekumel after Barker's passing.
One of the more controversial outings of the blog but one I am still
proud of running. The interview sprawls over great length but there
are fascinating bits spread through out. While one may like or
dislike the man, his recollections are important to our understanding
of the early days of the hobby.
One of my favorite interviews with one of my favorite people from our
side of the hobby. Trey on his post-Weird
Adventures victory lap. You better believe I will be banging on his
door again when his 70s space opera book Strange Stars sees the light of
“I happen to be interested in the hex
crawl sort of gaming, particularly in a sandbox fashion. I also
happen to be totally blind, so hex paper and so on isn't super
helpful for me. In fact, maps in general are kind of a pain in the
neck, because I can't read them easily, and I always feel like I'm
missing setting info of one sort or another.
So I'm wondering
if anybody has ideas for combining the point crawl approach, or one
which avoids maps, with randomized terrain generation? I'd love to
run something solo, like Scarlet Heroes from Sine Nomine, for
instance, but they all seem to presume hexes. Another way to look at
it would be an experience kind of like the Elder Scrolls video games,
which I can't play. It could be a lot of work doing something like
that solo, but…”
My first impulse was to rustle up some
online and published terrain generators, but scanning through my own
links I remembered my own frustrations trying to build such systems
last decade when I was primarily a solo minis wargamer. The key
problem for me being that many of them are too flatly random that is
they generate incoherently terrain without much rhyme or reason and
are boring as hell. Here is a dull little desert next to a bland forest
next to some “open.”
So where to start?
Fortunately I can think of two good
starting points: the ever-useful trainwreck that is the first edition
AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and an old Avalon Hill Game, Source
of the Nile. Since my time is limited (the Dunes call) I will
concentrate on the first.
Appendix B: Random Wilderness Terrain
(page 173) has a nice framework, a relatively easy and elegant system
of charts. Promisingly these charts take into account the terrain you
are just leaving (and really this will work even better with a
pointcrawl or mapless system). So if you are leaving a hilly area you
are way more likely to hit more hills or mountains than you are a
Click to Enlarge
D&D is chalked full of random
monster encounters by terrain (hard to get past the first edition DMG
again) so no need to go there but it would be handy and nice to have
some places to generate random color. Fortunately there boat loads of
handy online generators that can cover that in an interesting way.
Take this page on Abulafia alone (especially this one and this one which you can
just keep regenerating when you need interesting places).
Before shoving off this is perhaps
an ideal question to extend to the collective brain trust: what
random terrain generators do you know about that fit this bill (and
please read the specific query)?
Far up, the sea-gales blare their bitter screed: But
here the buried waters take no heed— Deaf, and with welded lips
pressed down by weight Of the upper ocean. Dim, interminate, In
cities over-webbed with somber weed, Where galleons crumble and
the krakens breed, The slow tide coils through sunken court and
- Clark Ashton
Several months back I had, thanks to
the actions of a player in picking up a very-obviously cursed goddess
statue, the chance to finally run a full-on underwater adventure. In
my many years of running D&D this was the first time I have
designed and run an underwater adventure and I found it challenging
and interesting in equal measure.
Having thrown the idol into a specific
spot under the urging of fever dreams (and yes the heavy hand of
geas), the party returned 40 days later as commanded to the site. A
massive black pylon had--naturally it's D&D--risen from the sea.
A long-drowned city with wide avenues and step pyramids leading up to
a large glowing central dome could be vaguely made out in the depths
below. Sweet water seeping from the naughty bits of a now
gigantic (and lewd enough to make me still feel awkward) idol inside
the pylon allowed them to breathe sea water and away they went.
The party made it through a couple
sessions and then some of their own character-driven goals called
them away (such is sandbox life). This morning I randomly refound my
notes for running the adventure and thought they might be of interest
to a broader audience. So with some clean-up and context here they
Sources for D&D Underwater
Blackmoor OD&D supplement,
pages 48-49. Some rules and guidelines for running aquatic
adventures. Best line: “To entice the players into the water is the
easy part: simply leave maps, create legends, or sprinkle in clues in
the form of bizarre artifacts. Adventurers are notoriously gullible
and easily duped or led astray.”
Dungeon Masters Guide 1st
edition, pages 55-57. Nice comprehensive set of guidelines, I
used this as my starting point.
“Watery Words to the Wise”, Dragon
magazine #48. Interesting overview of what an aquatic civilization of
Mer-people would be like, but more useful for its thoughts on using a
hex map for 3D tactical affairs.
Dealing with the 3D Environment
One of the hardest things to remember
and plan for is the 3D environment. I found that it was helpful to
keep two sheets of graph paper handy to help keep track of the
relative positions of things:
1. A blank sheet that shows the
relative “marching” order of positions vertically. This
especially became necessary as the party had some encumbered players
lumbering over the ocean floor (see sinking rules below) and others
“flying” around at varying depths over and around these
characters. This also especially handy when encounters are met in
open water. Using clock descriptions is helpful (“the sharks are
coming in at “two o'clock high”) when describing those positions.
2. A rough cross section of whatever
static sites you have. Sites can be approached from a wider set of
directions and it's fun (and challenging) to play this freedom up
with multiple vertical entry points and elements. I had a little
step-pyramid with a top entry, chimney and a bottom floor entry.
Having an overall sense of where everything is vertically is very
important to staying oriented.
Characters encumbered with more than 20
pounds of gear and/or metal-armored characters sink to the bottom.
Characters with high STR or CON (13 and over) are able to swim up 10
feet for two rounds every other turn (and will naturally sink again
if there is nothing solid below their feet). Others will need to shed
their weight before being able to swim or float upwards. (Bundles of
gear can be pulled upwards by ropes if the character is out of the
characters swim at their indoor, dungeon movement rates horizontally
or vertically. Encumbered
(as above) characters move at 60 feet per round.
Fly, Levitate, Free Action, Spider
Climb (when on a surface) spells and abilities will allow the user to
move at their normal land speeds without sinking for the length of
Having blown out an ear drum on an
overly-quick descent on a dive in Cozumel I am painfully aware of the
effects of pressure on the human anatomy. At depths lower than 100
feet (30 meters or so) nitrogen narcosis becomes a real thing for
humans without protective gear.
Because this is a fantasy game (and it
it's fun to be able to run adventures with a wider tolerance of
depths) I assume that Water Breathing and similar magics at least
double the depth that pressure can be withstood.
Compression/decompression issues are totally handwaved.
Characters dropping below the depth can
withstand the pressure for a round. After that they will suffer the
same effects as being seriously intoxicated for 1d4 rounds and then
start to take 1d4 hp damage each round after.
Light, refraction, physiology, etc
conspire against us seeing far underwater unaided. While I didn't
want to totally handwave this, the rules given in AD&D are way
too restrictive (100 feet up to a depth of the same). A DM especially
with a large area like my underwater ruined city is hard pressed to
be able to signal interesting sites and thus reduces meaningful
exploration choices. My handwave was similar to that of the depth
considerations and I made a simple chart to give a wider range:
Naturally lighting will reduce this
especially inside structures, caves, crevasses, kelp forests etc. In
that case I limited visibility to the normal effects of artificial
lighting (light spells mostly) or
Aquatic critters auto-win initiative
against the land-born.
Most missile, bashing, and slashing
weapons are useless in this environment. Piercing weapons such as
spears, tridents, daggers are highly effective however and will deal
out normal damage. Reduce swords to 1d4 damage to represent them
being limited to stabbing.
The vocal component of spell-casting is
assumed to come with the ability to breathe water. Page 57 of the
DMG has a relatively complete run down of restrictions and changes to
spells. Significant changes in my own were to increase the damage of
electricity-based (150%) spells.
say that it takes putting out a food 8-10 times for a toddler before
they will eat foods they are reluctant to try. Though my own lived
experience with Stormchild has me doubting that as bullshit from time
to time I find myself floating the same adventure hooks again and
again in the campaign until the players take a stab at them.
of the most outstanding hooks is an offer from Marlinko bon vivant
and philosopher Jarek the Nagsmen to come wrestle tigers in his tiger
pit for cash prizes. With Pickle the half ogre finally showing some
interest—and a whole Marlinko city supplement coming into being—I
finally got to dust off and expand a mini-game. (And yes this will
appear in a playtested and polished form in the published adventure).
fields three tigers of varying strength. The tigers claws and teeth
are filed down and blunted to give the wrestler a sporting chance
though the tiger is still quite deadly. Jarek will have his
beast-handlers step in and prevent the tiger from eating (over much)
a dead contestant.
are barred from the use of magic (Detect Magic spells will be cast by
Jarek's valet-mage). They are allowed to take leather jack (AC: 8)
into the ring with them.
Slinky Panc (Hit Dice: 4, AC: 6, Hp: 13), Bounty for Win 300 gold.
Meow-Meow (Hit Dice: 6, AC: 6, Hp: 25), Bounty for Win 1000 gold.
round the contestant can pick a maneuver from the list below. The GM
selects (or rolls a d4) a maneuver for the tiger. Both maneuvers are
crossed indexed for attack modifiers for the round: the contestant
modifiers are on the left and the tiger on the right. Attack rolls
are on the standard LL combat tables and are considered to be
simultaneous during the round. A successful hits sends either party
to the results table below the matrix.
Dodge = contestant+2 to attack in next round if the contestant is not hit
successfully this round.
1d3 (plus STR modifier) stun damage on the tiger.
= 1d3 (plus STR modifier) stun damage on the tiger.
= Tiger is in a hold and may not make a move in the next round other
than to break free. The tiger must roll a d10 under its hit points to
break out. If the tiger is successfully grappled for 2 additional
rounds the contestant wins.
= knocks contestant down, pinning him. He may not take an action
until he breaks free on a roll of 4d6 under his STR. The tiger will
attempt to bite him at +4 to hit for 1d4 damage each round he is
pinned. (If the tiger successfully pins on a round that the
contestant successfully grapples the two maneuvers cancel each other
for no effect.)
The write up for the unique Slumbering
Ursine Dunes pointcrawl nodes for the high-roller Kickstarter backers
is finally finished. Since the regular main adventure is functionally
laid-out and ready go that spells an end to all my work on the main
To celebrate here is a free critter for
you; the subject of the last “Full Brad” encounter and special
session macguffin, the dreaded wereworm.
"Tell me what you want done,
and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of
East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last
― Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit
No. Enc.: 1d4 (1d4)
Alignment: Chaotic (Evil)
Movement: 120’ (above land), 60'
Armor Class: 3
Hit Dice: 4
Attacks: 1 (bite)
Hoard Class: XX
Thought only to be myth even by the
most rigorous of borderlands sages, Wereworms do--sadly for
humankind--eke out a twisted (no pun intended) existence on the edges of human
civilization. In human form they appear to be perfectly normal human
specimens with the notable exceptions of their mouths which seem
uncomfortably circular and matched with a fetid, corrupted smell and
In worm form the creatures will appear
to be 7-8 foot long miniature versions of the dreaded Mauve Worm (a
mutation of the more common and equally dreadful Purple Worm). There
gaping mouths cause considerable damage. In such form they will
frequently be found burrowing underground in hopes of setting up an
Wereworms are subject to the same
advantages (magic/silver weapons can only effect them, disease etc)
and disadvantages (wolvesbane, lingering doubt about body image, etc)
as other lycanthropes in Labyrinth Lord.
More than once already through the
whole production of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes I have made a
happy dance (not literally, because dignity) over the artwork. It's
deeply gratifying about working with others who have immensely more
talent in the visual arts than you to bring something appealing to
life out of the word jumble madness in your head.
And by mad jumble I don't think I
exaggerate, art direction especially at the has been at the highwater
marks of work a strange free association. Describing the Eld to David Lewis Johnson and Luka Rejec at one
moment I think the phrase “oh they bulb-headed Melniboneans in
Geiger-like stormtrooper armor plus Bowie in his cocaine-fascist Thin
White Duke/Man Who Fell to Earth period" passed someone's lips.
Strangely that not only seemed to make
sense at the time but was something both of them could riff off of. I was pleasantly surprised to see where Luka went with his
imagination with the early concept art for the Dunes stretch goal
adventure, the Misty Isles of the Eld (an
expansion that covers the pocket dimension with vat complex and
“pagoda” city). Even the early work (keep in mind that these are
quick photo sketches not the finished works) hit all the right tones,
the dark fairy tale plus acid science fantasy vibe.
some time I have been putting together a laundry list post of “best
practices” for running long campaigns online. (The current weekly
Google Plus game is rolling into its fourth year—about half the
life of the whole Hill Cantons campaign.)
One of the biggest
hurdles of running games online is social cohesion. There is just
something about the lack of direct human contact that ratchets up the
flake factor beyond the usual range of adult scheduling issues:
players drop out of games within minutes of kickoff; gamemasters
cancel sessions with wild abandon, campaigns fizzle after a single
game; the video hangout freezes/drops/freaks the fuck out etc.
mechanism is that you have to be a lot more conscious and deliberate
about engaging players between sessions. Creating a campaign
rhythm and rapport because vital. At the low end of the effort poll
is creating a community page or other discussion and information hub,
but I have found that it helps for a gamemaster to be proactive and
create certain regular entry points for the players to be able to
plug into and feel the dynamism of a campaign.
Beyond the weekly
“take,” a combined After Action Report and loot/exp haul, I have
churned out with on again/off again regularity a weekly news report
as a “campaign cohesion linchpin.” Mirroring the exact style of
50-word news briefs I had to churn out each and every day for a while
as a news editor, the reports invariably feature 3-4 points (that
rarely go over three sentences) and an image. You can see examples
here and here.
My campaign news briefs come in at least several recognizable
stripes (often combining two or more):
Adventure Hook. The incredibly not-subtle, bang-you-over-the-head
“here be adventure” hook. Usually involving a discernible
mission, macguffin and/or defined bounty. This is always either an
announcement that I have designed a new area or to a tease a site
they may have missed in their sandbox explorations (hate wasting
five long centuries the sleepy Kezmaroki-ruled island of Ptuj has
tolerated with a resigned shrug its sister isle, Tolmin,
lost to the Weird. Last year alas Smok,
a youngish offspring of the great wyrm Zirnitra herself,
descended on great wings onto the House
of the Axe, a shunned
temple of the cthonic goddess called the Mistress of the Mountains.
Terrified Ptujians, whose rural residents have become the favored
snack of the great beast, are offering a substantive bounty for the
slaying of the dragon: gender-appropriate nubile concubines, a small
mountain of the island's vintage corn liquor, a local latifundia
estate, and 10,000 suns of cold hard cash.
The Subtle Hook. Perhaps
only subtle relative to the above is a mixed item (from the list
below) that may contain a line signifying that an actionable
adventure or geographic place may be interesting enough to warrant
in-session exploration. The actual site or mission will often be
Example:Vatek son of Vatek, is claiming to have unearthed
a 500-stone beet from his tenant farmer's field in
the hamlet of Ctyri Ctvrt. Most strange of all is the twisted
face-like blemish near the giant beet's crown. A local shepherd
claims to have heard a booming voice emanate from the storage hut
where it is currently housed two nights ago.
Oblique Background. The
Hill Cantons has developed firmly in the bottom-up worldbuilding
camp, accreting levels of detail as the campaign rolls on (really
starting just as a wilderness map of a very small bounded area). I
have a strong preference for presenting small interesting little
bites than dumping large reams of setting info.
Example: The Blood
Rains have swept into Kezmarok leaving syrupy, sticky
puddles and residues throughout the city. The Patriarch has declared
the ritual sympathetic mourning period to commiserate with our most
holy Sun Lord as he suffers his silver-chained beating from
his spurned former wife, the Celestial Lady. On pain of a
hefty fine, all residents of the city must wear the customary mustard
yellow through this period.
The Big Ticket Event. Most
all long campaigns start to generate dramatic large-scale events; the
bloody wars and earth-shattering cataclysms that make our world so
lovable. Some of these truly huge events sculpt the world the players
have to negotiate, others are significant and dramatic but may be
actionable of the party (the latter here).
Example: Two weeks of
inexplicable, furious flurry of activity in the Turko-Fey siege
camps have been followed by an even more ominous development--a
fusillade of shelling by the dreaded dragonne-cannons. While bonders
have braced pikes-awaiting for the usual half-hearted sortie
following the bombardment, the guns seem to have not abated in their
fury. In the first time in the five centuries of the Kezmarok
siege the outer of the three massive wall seems dangerously close
to a breach.
The Whimsy. Quite
often the last news item is an example of “I write whatever the
fuck I want.” These on self-indulgent ocassion run over long from
my usual “keep it quick” format. Shockingly also often these tend
to morph into Subtle Adventure Hooks.
Example: 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.
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.
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
that's it for today folks. Tomorrow if I have time/energy I may lay
out some tips and tricks for both writing these suckers and
generating the kinds of campaign events that motivate them.
The Texas folk-country singer Robert
Earl Keen once said about his abortive bull-riding career:
“I don't know how many of you have
ever ridden a bull. But it's like getting in your car and riding down
the freeway at 70 miles an hour--and then chucking the steering wheel
out of the window.”
Well my bull ride with the Slumbering Ursine Dunes Kickstarter is over. It wasn't quite as dramatic as
Keen's 15 seconds in the rodeo, but I definitely had a few wild
moments. They don't tell you in crowdfunding basic training just how
emotionally up and down and work the campaign itself can be. I'm both
simultaneously both exhausted and exhilarated.
Though tired I am fired up to do more
writing—and more gaming. Through all this madness--even up to the
profoundly weird and wonderful session last night in which Tazrun the
wolf-raised thief rescued his twin brother from his “kept man”
status in Brazona—the weekly Hill Cantons game has steamed on.
Over the next several weeks I will be
running some open games for backers both as a thank you and a
playtest of some of the new material we are busy tacking on the
mini-sandbox. The games will mostly be online on Google Plus but
hopefully we will also squeeze in a face to face game or two down
here in Texas. Drop me a line if you are interested.
[The rest of this post is a modified
excerpt from this afternoon's Kickstarter update, posted for killing
proverbial two birds with one stone purposes]
Early this morning the project crew and
a sizable number of backers and players counted down to the end in an
impromptu Google Plus video hangout. Though I would have been happy
and content to have merely funded, coming in at 543% funding, $8,152,
and thus hitting every single stretch goal frankly floored me.
Touching way beyond the money was the
earnest support of many of you in the broader DIY and old school
gaming communities. The sharing and encouragement that helps one feel
like all the struggle and effort was worth it. Kickstarter has an
interesting, backend array of ways to track where money is coming in
and one can tell more or less accurately where pledges are coming in
from. Seeing hundreds coming in from the efforts of fellow bloggers,
gaming forum goers and Google Plus regulars (almost $2,000 alone
there) was a tangibly heart-warming experience.
Although I almost always say this about the design
contests I run, it bears repeating as it just happens to be true once
again: the entries in the Win a Wargame Contest where an absolute
pain to pass judgment on. (You know due to how richly imagined and executed
they were on the whole.) Fortunately, this time around I had the sense
to recruit two other judges with better sense and talent then me,
Jason Sholtis and Anthony Picaro, to help smash through my usual
hemming and hawing.
We had 15 entries and used a reverse weighted point
system to come up with the results. The top three winners (really
four due to a tie) will receive a wargame from my collection (email
with pics coming) and free shipping. You have truly earned the kudos.
Also with the permission of the entrants we are
planning to use the entries in two ways in the final product bundle
of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes:
1. Depending on space 2-4 of the top selections will be
used as points on the pointcrawl in the final version of the sandbox
adventure with accreditation and a freebie (though I think all the
eligible winners are already backers).
2. A PDF compilation of all the entries for backers (and
with accreditation) to use as optional expansion points.
Following are the winning places with some excerpted
selections (naturally don't read if you plan on playing in the
Doyle Tavener with Tree of
(At night.) A
large willow tree looms over a small lake or pond. A weird,
disharmonious crooning can be softly heard coming from the boughs of
the tree above you. (At day.) A large willow tree looms
over a small lake or pond. There is a small stone altar at the base
of the tree, from which hang three moppets (small cloth
puppets). There are remnants of small cakes on the altar.
A huge willow tree stands here before a
small lake, which is itself obscured by a willow grove. Three
Rusalkas... hang here on the boughs of the tree at night, while
during the day they 'sleep' in the lake bed below the tree.
Humza K. with Vodník Pool
Coming around a curve,
a large pond comes into view. Two petrified trees overhang the water,
swamp moss drooping down. A half-sunken hut juts out from the middle
of the pond, with occasional glints of radiance peeking out.
Zoltán the vodník...can
be found here, lounging on a rock and puffing away at a long-stemmed
pipe. In contrast to most of his vodník brethren, he appears in
mostly human form: long moustaches, once splendid but now waterlogged
coat and hat, webbed hands and flapping gills at the sides of his
Anne Hunter with Diluvian
A millennia-old dam
complex here holds a reservoir of the last floodwaters of the Deluge.
The reservoir sits in the low point of a deep ravine. The birch
forest here grows thick and ancient; the eldest trees stand like
watchtowers around the dam. The floodwaters contain the last undying
pairs of extinct prehistoric fauna. Antediluvian treasures lie buried
beneath the mud in a ruined Nephilim village. The valley can only be
entered from the southwest and northeast. The paths are steeply
sloped and choked with seedling birches; ascending out of the ravine
takes twice as long as entering.
The dam is maintained by a
family of 6 giant beaver engineers... They are an unbroken lineage
from the megafauna shipwrights...
Robert Parker with the
A grueling climb up a
switchback trail leads to the top of a massive dune which gently
slopes down into a secluded valley at the edge of the Persimmon
Sea...In the valley are a rough circle of battered, rusting silver
huts. At this distance a pit in the center of the huts can be vaguely
In the valley itself is
the Chaos Monastery, the secret training ground of a bizarre
collection of martial arts aficionados, social misfits, and lovers of
all things awesome. Unlike traditional monasteries, the Chaos
Monastery is a place not of quiet contemplation and self-mastery, but
rather an occasional gathering place for whooping bands of hooligans
to guzzle plum brandy and to establish their pecking order through
good-natured bullying and displays of “badass” skill.
Fane of Grooze, the Grey God by
In a small, hidden vale, there lies
a strange stone pillar. This pillar is home to a grey ooze, known as
Grooze. He is the god of a small tribe of Feral Dwarves.
[The entry had a fantastic map and nice
little mini-dungeon attached.]
Obsidian by Jonathan Black
Towering spire of
twisted obsidian rises up out of a narrow valley of
variegated sandstone worn smooth by years of sandstorms and wind. A
well-traveled path leads south towards a small oasis, ringed with
shrubs and a few fig trees. At the bottom of the
spire, someone has built scaffolding around the towering rock to
hold it in place as they excavate the sand and stone from around the
base. Hidden by the wood and stonework supporting the spire is
a dank hole in the ground, leading to fetid caverns beneath the
Mentions Varkolaks Koshchey Bessmertny Czernobog's
The Slumbering Ursine Dunes is
lumbering along to its fourth stretch goal, this time putting the
ball back into my court to get some more heavy lifting done on the
writing front. In this case we turn to the local “home base” of
the Dunes region, the eccentric little borderlands city of Marlinko.
In the last KS update I told backers
what NOT to expect. Namely that the supplement wouldn't be take "kind of deadly dull keyed map approach that tells you the utterly
mundane potter at Building 21 has 3 hp."
To get myself back in the mood of this
place, the current party continues to disappoint me by stubbornly
going everywhere but back to this city, I rustled up old notes from
the campaign. Here are some abridged excerpts from the notes (expect cuts and
revisions to fit with the focus mentioned above).
The original crappy player's map (to be redrawn professionally, naturally)
Marlinko is a bustling, smallish city of about 6,000 and governing seat of Marlinko Canton. It is the southernmost town-sized settlement
in the Overkingdom before it peters off into pure howling wilderness.
Though prosperous, Marlinko is deeply infected by it's relative
isolation and closeness to the Weird. Life there as such takes on a
strange fever-dream cast even by the standards of the rest of the
The Manse of the Lady Szara. The
notoriously-erratic, allegedly -undead lady abruptly moved away three
years ago “to visit relatives back in the Corelands” and her
town-manse was overtaken by the also-seemingly-undead, thief-hero Kugel
the Lucky. Rumors abound about underground excava...cough...cough
Catacombs of St. Jack's Church of the
Blood Jesus. After three weeks of backbreaking work—under the
expert supervision of the Termex the Robodwarf--by devotees of this
imported, alien and utterly syncretistic cult, a catacomb space has
been excavated by nun-maeneds under the city. The new sparagamos fane
and exquiste ossuary-like sculptures are "things of beauty"
report cult leader Vatek son of Vatek.
Tomb of the Town Gods. Located in the
central plaza is the squat polished basalt bulk of this mausoleum of
the sleeping divine founders of the city. The local Sun Lord
followers have made a lifetime of quietly ignore the obvious
blasphemy of such a thing existing. It is whispered that
extradimensional gates lie inside but what fool dares to explore the
terrifying silence of that space?
The Guild of Condotierre,
Linkboys, Roustabouts and Stevedores's Dome of Supernal
Dealings. Marlinko is a “union town” and even the hirelings have
lasting organization. The hiring of “scab” henchmen is
The Guild of Accipitraries, Drovers,
and Ankle-Beaters. Run by the supreme hard-ass, Hurloj Kladivo, a
good place for the sale or training of animals. Be wary of kidnapping
The Serene Guild of Seers, Augurs,
Runescasters and Wainwrights. For 4000 gold 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
The Drunken Troll. An upmarket inn
located just south of the Tomb-Plaza of the City Gods. The inn's
silent owner is said to be by local gossips the infamous Yadis, an
anonymous, foul-mouthed satirist. The inn is also noted as the home
of local second-fiddle mage (and man of letters) Mandamus the Erudite
and his companions Uma, Barbarella, and “Martin the Fighter”.
Brothers of the Other Mother
chapterhouse. Local chapterhouse of an Orthodox Sun Lord monastic
order that promotes the veneration of a less divine “Marian” like
mother-figure to the Celestial Lady. These guys are assholes.
Fraza's Brokerhouse. Fraza the
freakishly-honest dealer in curios has his showroom here, a good
place to experience the novel situation of selling without being
The News Around Town
The Rada of Marlank (ruling
council), in an apparently arbitrary fit of borderlands pique and
Pahr identity politics, has decreed that the southern cantonal
city will heretofore not be referred to its Nemec exonym and may only
be referred to as “Marlinko.”Official reasons remain mirky but
one Rada councilmember anonymously stated that it “reminded them
too much of Fritz.” Local residents continue to call the city
whatever the Cold Hell they please.
Marlan...err Marlinko, tiger-wrasslin' has come back in
vogue thanks to a self-proclaimed “Master Beastmaster” newly
immigrated from points South. Local characters willing to go toe to
claw with a lovable furry orange killing machine should inquire with
bon vivant Jarek the Nagsmen. A 500 gold sun bounty is offered
for anyone who survives the match.
While Kezmaroki fashion has been
bending to the austere and plain of dress since the Turko Fey
Anti-Rapture, haute fashion has been taking some risky new steps in
the Hill Cantons proper. This week in Marlank, Chovo the
Omniaesthete is expected to reveal his new line of fabulously
sequined merkins (pubic wigs). Codpieces are definitely on the
In other exotic cult news, the Church of the Blood Jesus has passed its sell-by date as
the flavor of the month. Doctrinal arguments over virgin births, a
shortage of animals suitable for the Sparagmos rites, and a growing
annoyance to the Rada have withered the strange sect's recent growth
spate. Despite the setbacks, Vatek son of Vatek, continues to preach
the Good Word along with the most devout of the nun-maenads.
Guildsmen of the Illustrious
Workers of Wood (commonly referred to as the “Totterers”)
are celebrating the fifth century anniversary of their local lodge
this week. A giant wickerman has been erected in the Plaza of the
Horned Oracle for the festivities.
The scurrilous tribe
of were-worms who migrated from the Weird into the
Slumbering Ursine Dunes last month have stepped up their depredations
in the area. The Rada has hotly debated a plan to
introduce giant robins into the dunes to halt the menace.
So today is the day that the Win a Wargame Contest ends. Several people have asked about an
extension--and though we already have 11 rock-star entries--your
pleas have not fallen on deaf ears. The contest deadline has been
officially extended to Saturday 7:00 in the pm Central US time.
To be fair to those who made early
entries, those of you who have already submitted can take extra time
to work on your entry as long as it makes the new deadline.
In every long-running sandbox campaign there
comes a time (really many times) that the players run full tilt
toward the undefined edge of your known world. An adventurous GM who
likes surprises runs with this even if it means having to call a
timeout while you hastily change the reel.
He says Hy-Brazos still runs muddy
like she's run all along There’s never been no cane to grind and
the rye's all but gone.
What brought the loud-talking,
tall-tale-loving, slate-skinned Sons and Daughters of Dahn, today's
Brazonians, thundering across the World Canal from the Southeast
Quarter three centuries ago no one alive today truly knows. Or
perhaps it's just that no one really gives two ocular bat guano
pellets about why, the Dahnii themselves included--a people so
confused by the faulty mnemonic devices of their holy drunk-skalds
that they seem only to care about the present and the mythic
What is know is that before their
fearsome war-wagons rolled inexorably over the Trackless Wastes into
the delicate civilized valley of the great Hy-Brasos River that the
Dahnii lived grim horse warrior lives of not-quiet desperation in
eternal conflict with the shadowy macronauts, star gliders, fell
youngminds and other figures only hypothesized by men of science and
At that time before the walked into the
supernal light of our most Puissant Sun Lord, the Sons and Daughters
worshiped in sweaty, mare milk-speckled yurts only the pagan
Seven-Horse and their hero-founder Dahn. In that benighted time they
were said to dwell on the fringes of the Forest of Copper never
daring to enter having been chased by demons from the Forests of Gold
and Silver respectively. On the edge of that dazzlingly-beautiful
woodland, they swaggered and yelled and fought and loved and fought
With their warlike ardor and an unholy
love of obscure derivatives markets one could truly call them
“barbarians” and not feel terribly behind the times. A point
really only underscored by their crushing of the flourishing
Hy-Brasos civilization, a secluded and achingly beautiful borderlands
melange of cultures that tolerantly mixed glammer-slyphs,
rose-cheeked dirt-gnomes, kuduk quarterlings, talking dogs and hardy
Nemec missionary-pioneers of the Sun Lord.
In that timeless exchange of
invigorating cultural exchange that marks History the Dahnii bestowed
upon the valley inhabitants the gifts of death, peonage, horse-stew
and junk bonds while the Hy-Brasosites gave them back religion and
the clap. To this day the Dahnii-speaking Brazonian majority still
Today's Kingdom (or Empire to the
locals) of Brazonia uneasily mixes features of what came before. The
grays-skinned Dahnii have increasingly taken on the features of their
subject peoples. Here a sturdy Dahnii burgomeister with balloon-nose and
fondness for green peaked caps, there a fierce cavalry-leader with a
penchant for glitter powder.
Local culture such as it is seems to
have one foot in the refinements and baroque hierarchy of the
Overkingdom, another still in the warlike horse nomad past. Thus in
the city of Great Dahn grey-walled sundomes and townhouses that would
be home in the Cantons vie across muddy avenues with bizarre Sunlord
statutes lead by seven-headed horse teams, melancholic wee-people
ghettos, and high-backed kurgans.