Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Creation Myth for the Cantons

All unbearable fantasy worlds demand a ponderous and senseless creation myth. Why should Zem, the world of the Hill Cantons differ? 

Tell us, oh savant of savants, oh chanter of lullabies, oh chiseler of gratuities, now that we are deep into our cups, the origin of this turtle-bound world?

First there was the Void.

Void? Surely nullity could not exist before World-Matter?

It matters little, of it's Nature we can not say but that All Void is divided into Three Parts. In the beginning, tiring of the Space of Demons the Overgod floated into the Insufferable Void on his great galley.

“What is the measure of my being?” he asked no one in particular. The Overgod was a restless god, troubled by his past of toil and tribulation and overeager for evolution. After listening to the ungrateful pattering and never-ending sideways stories of the Void only for answer he became impatient. “I must begin my work again,” he said to the poor-listening Void.

The Overgod began to toil. Great balls of burning vapor he hurled into the reaches of the Void, who bothered not to pause in story even. Around these balls he spun smaller balls of rock, metal, ice and gas. Great rings he placed here and there and span them all.

Enough with the old wives tales, man.
And in all that creation the Overgod grew frustrated and weary. “This is but the same as before. My work is thankless and jejune.” In his weariness he invented Drink in order to care not.

And the Overgod drank and drank and drank.

And soon he was joyous, dancing upon his creations in defiance. “I can take all you motherfuckers,” he roared before slipping off the shoulders of a gas giant. And then he slept for a great aeon and Drink split and covered many of the rocks.

And he slept and slept and in those wet, yeasty places grew Ocean.

When Overgod woke, his head felt smitten. “What have I done with my Drink?” he muttered piteously and his weariness came again.

“I crave sensation,” he mused to the newly-cowed Void. So he divided himself into Man and Woman and Both and he/she/them loved themselves in countless couplings. And the Overgod(s) begat other gods, the Little Gods.

Tiring of this and marveling at the wonder of his many offspring, he reformed and watched them in their dance for a great while.

But even this became stale, the staging too familiar and circular, the tales too predictable and then he created the Weird and the Dialectic that things would always change and not-change and then change again anew throughout the ages. Now pleased with his great work, a complicated, terrible and beautiful thing, he invented Drink again.

And again he drank and drank and slept and slept. And the Little Gods begat even littler gods and demons even and all fought and drank and stole and loved and lived again and again. And such is where our world in our time began.

There is something missing old man. Why do you shrug so?

Ale co se delas? (Old Pahr: “But what can you do?”)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Pointcrawling Inside Hexes

Many a virtual page has been sacrificed on this here blog in elaborating various pointcrawling schemes. One could leave with the impression that I was completely down on hex maps in general.

This is really not at all the case. I still find that hexes still have a great deal of utility. Their numbering system and wide-open organization are ideal for any campaign I run where thorough 360-degree exploration and domain game-like clearing are central activities (such as the new colonizing Feral Shore phase of the campaign). It makes it hella easy in that context to organize the session when the players just say “ok so let's explore some of the hexes around the fort, we will take 21.20 and hop on to 21.19 and 21.18”

But I just can't leave it alone.

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of the actual site organization of a single hex, I tend to fall back on using a pointcrawl nestled right up in the hex. My brain continues to rebel against the yawning emptiness of even the five-mile hex in traditional D&D wilderness hex thinking (that point being made so well here) and it needs to fill in that space with a number of small little “rooms.”

So when it comes down to that kind of micro-exploration, I like having the more focused choices of the dungeon and the point-connector schema mirrors that nicely.

How does mixing the two systems work?

A good starting point for showing what I am on about is to boogie back to my original inspiration for the idea, that wonderful old Avalon Hill warhorse (that I could never figure out how the hell to play with all my preciousness as a tween): Magic Realm. One of the most fascinating and visually-interesting components of the game were the hex geomorphs that allowed you to build a totally new gameboard everytime you played (they also could be flipped to reveal a nifty new purple-hued configuration when the hex was transformed by sorcery, but no need to go into that).

The hexes provide an interesting way to break down the hex into smaller areas and provide a number of constrained exploration choices and dilemmas for a party wanting to scout out the whole area. 
A single Magic Realm hex.

Unpunched for the full effect
My own system is a bit less “geomorphy,” the external connections into the hex are a bit more abstracted and free-form to push back on the “gaminess” and allow for multiple approaches into the hex. I use the same color and connector in my wilderness pointcrawl (rather than restate the whole thing just look here at the text right after the pointcrawl illustration). Here is a semi-hypothetical example. 
Contents of a mashed-up Feral Shore five-mile hex
The only significant difference is the scaling amount of time between points and the dots on connectors that represent extra travel time. On occasion my pure wilderness pointcrawls may include contours, I make greater use of these in the intra-hex pointcrawl.

That's really all there is. As always the system continues to evolve, some concepts getting dropped as too fiddly, others getting more elaboration over time.

Questions? Suggestions for improvement?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Playdoh Monster Arena Rules

A favorite “let's kill 30 minutes because Mr. K has a migraine” pastime in the worldbuilding and creative writing class for tweens I teach is the much-beloved “Playdoh Monster Arena.”

The rules are pretty dang simple, a stripped down version of the Clay-O-Rama playdoh monster rules from Dragon Magazine #125 (which I had a blast playing at our mini-con with full grown adults). But trust me this game brings out the competitive beast in even the sweetest of ten-year olds.

Monster Arena Rules
All monsters are:
constructed from at least a single large handful of playdoh;

allowed a d6 in hit points (unless they are “tough” see below);

have either three bombs no bigger than a dime or one single large bomb that's the size of a quarter.

A monster can opt to be one of three things:
Tough. They get an extra die worth of hitpoints.

Mean. They get two melee attacks in one turn.

Fast. They move at twice the normal speed (four handspans)

The Turn
1. Initiative. Determine who goes first with a d6. Highest score goes first and then around the table clockwise.

2. Bombs Away. The player gets to throw his bomb. His hand must stay behind the plane of his own monster, anything thrown over that is disqualified. A hit does a d6 worth of hp damage.

3. Movement. Monster can move two handspans (Fast monsters go four).

4. Melee. If the phasing monster is in direct contact with another monster he can make a melee attack. Roll a d6 on a 4,5,6 he hits. Roll a d6 for damage.

A monster killed in the line of duty is smashed by its creator (unless the ref rules that the poor creature has “exemplary artistic merit” in which case, take him home).

Proceed until there is only one sore winner champion-monster on the table.  

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ciao to the Tree Maze and Golden Barge

It's been a productive week here up in the hills and nothing makes me more happy than knocking a couple projects off of that ever-growing hobby project list.

I waxed enthusiastically last week about recovering a piece of my D&D tween past—the dreaded Tree Maze of the Twisted Druid. Happy to say complete with faux typewriter font, craptastic illustrations and hand-drawn map that it is ready and rearing to be played next Tuesday (a free PDF of that madness will be out after right that.)

The actual writing I found surprisingly very difficult, in fact I would go as far as to say it was one of the hardest pieces I have written in the recent past (and this coming from a guy who had to write ballbuster grad school papers and churn out insane amounts of timely copy in a newsroom.) The trick of trying to complete something fragmentary and so distant in memory and life space, while not bleeding over into total mockery or wholesale revision is a crazy balancing act.

Here's a concrete example, I retrofitted and reworked (slightly) an excerpt from a wince-worthy short story I had written in junior high (a year or so after the adventure) to serve as the requisite module intro:
“The Twisted Druid needs a punch in the nuts.

Once known to the world as the Druid Onald Agon he lived a life alone deep in the dark wild forest among the tall elms, live oaks and grackles. Alone day after endless day his brain turned in on itself and thoughts of raw power ate at him.

It was then that the old pecan tree, twisted in trunk with blackened gnarled bark, began talking to him. Telling him to do things. Dark things.

First it was little things like cutting the heads off chipmunks. Then evil and eviler things until his heart became as black as the trunk of that ancient tree. And in that great embracing darkness he began drawing around him and corrupting others of the forest in a maze made from living perverted trees.

It made him laugh.

But the Realms of Men cannot abide such Evil forever. Heroes are gathering and it is time to enter the maze, slay the Druid and take his ill-gotten booty.”
It doesn't quite satisfy me. It's only partially “true” to the writer's voice (no way would I have put “nuts punching” in the lede) and vision of 11-year-old Chris stuck in this weird and evocative ruined pile for his summers. It perhaps bends the stick too much in the self-mocking direction...yet...yet, I think the whole package will be heaps of fun to run next week. And I suppose for elfgames that's what really matters, right?

Nicely the sense of accomplishment from knocking out that silly and vain project, lit up the fires for finishing the Golden Barge as a publicly-presentable adventure and not just the jumble of pen-scrawled cocktail napkins, bullet points, chicken scratches and wine-stained maps that I use to run games with.

Not exactly sure yet what I want to do with it but likely on the suggestion of the players put it out:
1. as a stand-alone gift-booklet for anyone humoring me enough to play in my Golden Barge session at North Texas RPG Con

2. bundling it up with the rest of my write-ups of the surrounding Slumbering Ursine Dunes as a mini-sandbox and throwing it into the Live Weird or Die compilation of Hill Cantons setting hoo-ha and alternative mechanical bits.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tree Maze of the Twisted Druid

Over the holidays I had a chance to hoof it up to my mom's house. She surprised me by handing over a small cardboard box filled with most roleplaying game related things from my tween days in the early 80s.

As a grown man I am almost ashamed to admit how excited I was to get the box. The contents were mildly disappointing, heavy on coverless Dragon and stone age computing magazines. What I really wanted were my old dungeons and notes. Sadly the only things left were some random scraps in a spiral notebook, the most complete find was a first edition Gamma World base.

The best and most chuckle-producing thing I did find, though, was a single half page of a numbered key to a DIY, somewhat narcissistically-titled module, CK1: Tree Maze of the Twisted Druid, that I inflicted on my brother's and best friend's characters (and a couple of my own GM PCs) somewhere around 1981.

The matter would have just died there with that little nostalgia binge if I hadn't been tooling around the internet instead of working and found some touchingly-sweet examples of the kind of handmade modules that any number of other Gen X kids were producing at the time.

The similarities, down to the awkward attempts to replicate TSR- modules got my brain juicing on the completely stupid idea of reproducing that “dungeon” on a “more or less faithful” (cough, cough) degree and inflicting it on a stoic group of 3-7 players. A few feverish hours down, I managed to recreate a big chunk of it down to the cover and crappy hand-drawn map (I drew the line at handwriting all the interior copy)

So behold, straight from the Box from Chris's Mom's Garage (more or less)...
The Cover!

Interior Art!

A sneak peak at the Map!
(An Excerpt!)
Hooks to get your party out of their Sandbox and into the Adventure!
The party is in the hamlet of Hamlet in the Gnome Hills and the Sheriff (7th level fighter, LN) says, “bring me the head of the Twisted Druid, or I will chop off your head!” He has 5d8 hobilars in ring mail with bec de corbins and scimitars with him (40% chance of horseman's mace).

The party jumps through a red demon mouth in the Mauseluem (sic) of Terror and poof they are in the maze!

While drinking at the Prancing Pony Inn the PCs are kissed by a naked lady. Then 4d6 sailors slip knockout drugs into the beer. They steal the best item from each party member and hide them in the Maze!

The party is in the Cathedral of Elemental Naughty and a chute opens and they fall into a big cave that has the Maze in it!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Vertical Pointcrawling

Longtime readers will note that I have spent a good deal of time working out how to organize horizontal space in the kind of pointcrawl format that works for the cracked hardwiring that is my brain. I've covered the wilderness, undercities, above-ground city ruins even the vast space underworld of Planescape's Sigil.

One thing that hasn't been touched on is some of the more complicated ways I have been using related schemes to add (literally at times) new dimensions to existing points: the vertical pointcrawl.

Let me back up and give you some background. A year or two back much of the eponymous campaign revolved around the exploration of the vast undercity Kezmarok. That space is on the whole organized with two horizontal pointcrawls: one above for a ruinscrawl of the sad old portions of the city and the more frequently-used undercity pointcrawl below.

It's mostly worked quite well on my end with the party in the main exploring and clearing various points each corresponding to a single sheet of graph paper. Recently in one of my favorite organic developments in a sandbox campaigns one of the PCs, Ba Chim the wereshark-landsknecht, has had to trade a favor, recover the artifact Spinning Wheel of Mokosh, to the archwizard Frantisek for a spell to regrow his burned off left leg.

This quest is taking them back to the undercity this time to a sub-level/structure called the Hypogeum of Vibaker in the Rubicand Caverns of Oldest Lhoma (there are at least three homage, in-jokes hidden in there).

Which roundabout gets me to the point(crawl), that system of caverns has taken up some undisclosed numbers of points on the horizontal pointcrawl. Here's my rub though, I had conceived them as a somewhat complicated series of vertically-layered caverns and though my horizontal scheme allows for some vertical organization by way of the various point connectors, it didn't really robustly support the kind of visual organization you would see for instance in the old cross-section maps stretching back to the famous ones in the LBBs of OD&D.

In other words, I wanted something that could break out a point (or related points) with a vertical organizer while maintaining the same spatial integration with a horizontal pointcrawl.

Thanks to medical necessities I had a lot of time on Tuesday to rework things. Here is a veiled and greatly simplified version of what I redid. There is nothing profoundly different here mind you, just a flipping of the axis with some different reworking of the connectors and color-coding to represent vertical differences.

Basically a few things are going on here.

One you will see a key at the bottom. Squiggly lines represent long staircases. Straight lines running vertically represent shafts (stupidly and confusingly I drew them horizontally here which should just represent normal horizontal connections) and dotted lines sloping tunnels or ramps. Normal connectors will run 10-30 minutes of travel, while a dot represents a long space or difficult to travel space with four hours of travel per dot.

Secondly, the colors map to this:
Light Green = Small, relatively low-ceilinged natural caves
Dark Green = Artificially-worked areas typically 10-15 feet high (dungeon)
Orange = Large caverns with soaring ceilings.

I still feel like this missing something and that naturally bothers me. Maybe something that jumps out to you the reader?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Value of a Damn Good Nickname

Last week I had a chance to finally play in the irrepressible Robert Parker's Krul and by play, of course, I mean die horribly by my own hand after 45 terrifying/exhilarating minutes of being lost in the dungeon and firing my stolen rifle like a maniac. Among the many colorful and nifty house rules (the downtime mechanics are a delight) is a very simple rule that I love dearly: on achieving third level the PC can choose an appropriate nickname (usually of the “X the Whatever” variety.)

This pushes all my buttons the right way, as a player I am awfully fond of the “pretty, shiny beads” types of status awards, the kind that have little to no mechanical effect other than bragging rights or peacock-like displays. But as far back as the pre-gens in my first module, B1, (“Kracki the Hooded One,” “Mohag the Wanderer” and company) I have also just happened to love the hell out of archaic nicknames.

Near my desk sits a copy of the Steel Bonnets, a narrative history of the Scot-English Border Reivers feuding and raiding, by the author of the scumbag-extraordinarie Flashman series. One chapter in particular is well-marked for inspiration, a chapter wholly devoted to the weird and wonderful nicknames earned the hard way in the period. It starts up with the somewhat pedestrian but nevertheless colorful examples based on local geography, rank or relationship: “Jock of the Side”, “Hob of the Leys,” “Sim the Laird”, or “Whitbaugh's Andy.”

From there they just get wilder, reveling in strange, offensive appellations and best of all those won in actual exploits on the field. There's the Elliot brothers going by “Buggerback” and “Dog Pyntle”. There's David “Bangtail” Armstrong riding along in history next to Archie “Fire-the-Braes”, “Ill-Drowned” Geordie, “Nebless” Clem Closer, “Fingerless” Will Nixon, “Crack Spear”, the odd “Laird-Give-Me-Little”, and the mysterious “Hen-Harrow.”

Research for Feudal Anarchy uncovered an amazing variety of similarly satisfying nicknames. Many just piled up in ecstatic proportions. I mean who could turn their back on “Catherine de' Medici Jezebel, the Barren Wife, the Black Queen, the Eclipsed Consort, the Italian Duchess Without a Duchy, the Maggot from Italy's Tomb, the Merchant's Daughter, the Monstrous Regiment of Women, the Mother of the Modern High-Heeled Shoe?”

The Hill Cantons in fact are sloppy with these kinds of constructions. My usual formula being a “one-letter off Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Archaic German, or Wholly Fantastical name” THE “in-joke, archaic occupation, lovable underused word, or bad pub.” So thus the Marlank playboy-philosopher Jarek “the Nagsman,” the addled sage Slavo “the Salacious,” the doleful bandit Libor “the Lugubrious,” the god-eating patriarch Ummas “the Unctious,” the cranky robo-dwarf Xhom “the Contumelious,” and so on down the line.

Having a nicknaming convention works fall around for me. On one hand it provides a silly, but consistent verisimilitude that helps me get in the right mood to create a NPC (I always, always start with the name). On the other it provides me with the kind of mini-game that helps me keep rejuvenated through the more humdrum operations of running a long campaign.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

News and the War-Bear Marching Song

Even the Hills have slow news day, so here are some bears!

For a city made so jaded by centuries of siege, strange, supernatural shocks continue to rule the news from Kezmarok. For two long minutes it seemed that Lower Kezmarok was delivered from its oblivion. 

Mid-morning the barely visible skyline of that half of the city flashed back into corporeal existence along with its terrified citizenry—a score of whom managed to run to the higher environs of the rock before the city ward just as abruptly jerked back into its slow fade. An excited crowd of stevedores who rescued the survivors tell of wild stories of the ward floating in a bubble inside a solid metal tower as the sounds of a great battle issued outside. The survivors have been rushed to the palace of King Ulyosalik for their own safety and comfort.

Goatherds across the Hill Cantons have been reporting a staggeringly large number of night-time mutilations of their flocks. Men of science deny that there may be a connection between this and the recent sightings of large metallic spheres floating in the night sky over the last week.

While awaiting the return of the masters of the Feral Shore, the noted war-bear Preved! has been living up to his reputation among the folk of Kingsten. Okko, the steward, has been forced to listen to countless grousing of couples who right dab in the middle of affairs amorous in nature were interrupted by the sudden, terrifying appearance of the bagpipe-wielding bearling screaming his trademark name.

Despite the disruptions, Preved has seemed to charm the camp and that old timeworn marching song of the bears has become a favorite of the after-work bonfires.

Marching Song of the War-Bears
March, March, Ye Karhus and Grizzlies
Why, my cubs, don't ye form up in order?
March, March, Ye Brerbears and Issili!
All the War-Bears are over the border.

Many a banner flutters above your head,
Many a hero that is famous in story
Count and make ready then, cubs of the forgotten dead,
Fight for your Hetbear and old Medved's glory.

Come from the hills where the black goats are grazing,
Come from the vale of the buck and hirsute law;
Come to the crag where the beacon is blazing,
Come with the glaive, the bill and the paw.

Trumpets are sounding, beornlings are bounding,
Stand to your polearms and march in order;
The kozaks shall many a day, tell of the bloody fray,
When the War-Bears came over the border. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

The War-Bear: Yet Another B/X or LL Class

But first the news...

Once again the eastern borderlands of the Overkingdom will be filled with the sight of shaggy, dejected columns of soldier-bears lumbering back to the hollow-seeming duties of garrison life. For Yambor, the great biennial pilgrimage of those furry myrmidons to the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, is over. But some younger cubs and war bears resist the melancholy by striking out on the road of vagrant adventuring scumbaggery.

Popping of up seemingly everywhere that a party may need a hired paw is one bear in particular, Preved!, who makes the same offer “for 40 shiny golds and two fish I run with you tonight.” 

 Preved!, 2nd-level Soldier Bear, Hitpoints 12, AC:6. Uses Bohemian Ear Spoon (d10+1). Has an uncomfortable tendency to pop in at an intimate moments of the humans around him shouting his name.

War Bear
Requirements: STR 13, CON 14
Prime Requisite: CON
Hit Dice: 1d10
Maximum Level: 8

The Nurian Soldier-Bear stands alongside the Ostrovan pikeman, Kozak horse-archer and Northland atlatl-man as some of the most renowned examples of soldiery in the world of Zem. Lesser known are the wayward bears who strike out on their own in the world in search of quantitatively measured experience, the proud bearers of the appellation, War Bear.

War Bears can wear no armor other than a helmet and instead have a base armor class (a DEX bonus can be added). Magical devices can be used but must be able to fit around the large-sized limbs of the War Bear.

Though outside the comforting phalanx of soldier life, the War Bear retains the deep, obsessional love of polearms, including the traditional +1 to hit and damage when employing it. Indeed a War Bear who has been parted from the sight of such a weapon for longer than a day will sicken with dejection and beyond a constant audible and dramatic sighing will lose a hit point until he grasps it yet again. In a weaponless pinch they can strike twice a round with their paws for 1d4 damage each. 

At level 6, the War Bear can invent and name a polearm of his own design at a cost of 500 gold suns and two weeks of intense concentration, such a weapon will be +2 to hit and damage only in his own paws and can even strike those creatures only harmable by magic weapons. At level 8, the War Bear has reached such fame that he can automatically attract a warband of 50 soldier-bears on the creation of a comfy underground den complex of no less than 2000 square feet (and two latrines).

War Bears save as Dwarves and fight as Fighters of the same level.

Soldier-Bear Level Progression
Experience Level Hit Dice (1d8) Armor Class
0 1 1+2 6
2,300 2 2+2 6
4,600 3 3+2 5
9,200 4 4+2 4
18,400 5 5+2 4
36,800 6 6+2 4
73,600 7 7+2 3
147,200 8 8+2 3

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On the Passing of Michael Shea

“Nifft the Lean is no longer among us, and I have at last confessed to myself, hereafter, he never will be...It is a bitter thing that each of must finally be blown out like a candle , and have the unique ardor of his individual flame choked off, and sucked utterly away like smoke in the dark. Do we ever accept this in our hearts, any of us?”

So Michael Shea began Nifft the Lean with a in-character, windbaggy eulogy to his eponymous
picaro. It seemed morbidly fitting to me on hearing the sad news of Shea's passing yesterday
from the irrepressible Robert Parker.

I've probably mentioned a few many times on the blog how much love I have for Jack Vance's work and how much I wanted to strike that tone in the Hill Cantons.

That particular authorial voice, cadence of dialogue and turn of words is so elusive, so personal, that I have never felt that I quite got there and I have always felt the same way about the various attempts either through games or stories to capture the feel of Dying Earth. Shea's attempt to do the second Cugel with Quest for Simbilis (often forgotten since Vance went on to knock it out of the park with his own sequel) felt very flat to me, cringe-worthy even when it hit on Cugel's internal voice.

It was lucky for me that I gave him another shake with Nifft as it is such a wonderful book and something really close with its picaresque turns and weird, richly imagined fantasy to the tone of what I wanted to do with the Hill Cantons. In fact I was moved even to do a little, direct homage (reprinting being the highest form of flattery) in my write-up on the Amazon class.

When people talk about how D&D never quite got right extra-planar adventures, I have a hard time not thinking of the two outstanding episodes of raiding Hell and the demonic underworld.(Planescape as the fierce-opinionated players in the HC bull session opined almost gets there as a setting.) The two novellas hit all the right literary notes to me and make me hunger for something that can get that kind of adventuring in strange dimensions right.

My own windbaggery aside, sad news and a not-so virtual cup will be raised in the session tonight to the man and his work. If you aren't familiar with the two Nifft books, do yourself a favor and check them out.