Friday, 23 January 2015

Dwarves and Weather

It makes sense that a civilized underground race like the Dwarves would treat things we take for granted like the sun, moon and weather as we treat arcane astronomical phenomena. This means:
  • Advanced dwarven settlements often have an above-ground observatory with wind gauge, rain meter, mercury column, smoked glass for observing the Sun, and other such equipment.
  • Ouranology is the civilization advance responsible for maintaining an objective, sun-based standard of timekeeping, because dwarven settlements with a sleep-cycle-based calendar diverge greatly over long periods of time. But timekeeping by the moon? Weird, occult, something humans and elves do.
  • Very advanced ouranologists observe the clouds up close
  • Superstitions spring up about fate and basic personality depending on the state of the sun and moon at  time of birth (So you're an Afternoon Waning? Far out, so am I)
  • Dwarves who venture above ground are seen as cosmonauts of sorts, and there is fussing about the optimal weather conditions and possible catastrophes that seems baffling and neurotic to humans.
  • Continuing the analogy, dwarves with lots of above-ground experience have physiological adaptations (no longer blinded by sunlight, losing their agoraphobia) akin to the effects of zero-gravity, that make them a little strange to those in their native habitation.
  • When dwarves name things after the "Day" and "Night" (like the Day and Night Kings in Monte Cook's Ptolus, which brought this whole topic to mind) it's a lot more arcane and cosmic to them than when humans do.
  • Dwarves sneer at any science or magic that gives importance to the stars or planets. Size matters, and the biggest things in the sky are clearly the sun, moon and clouds.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Planes of Prognardia

Rarely does the concept album, hallmark of the intellectually aspirational rock group, actually gel into a realized fantastic world. Even more rarely does it approach the consistency - complete with maps - of the Atlantean prehistories imagined by the symphonic metal band Bal-Sagoth. No, what we mostly get are snippets, ripe for repurposing. But such snippets ... Imagined below are six pocket planes that resound from the halls of prog-rock music.

1. Sunhillow (Chaotic Good)
Source: Yes' Fragile, Jon Anderson's Olias of Sunhillow

This is the micro-planet depicted on the cover of Fragile whose mythos is expanded on the Olias album. The core of neutronium holds this little sphere together and allows the topographic oceans, Deanish peaks, Great Glimmering Road, and eight-mile trees to exist. The dwellers are pristine noble savages who hunt the buoyant Fish of the Plain, although not all is easy street, for the rough passage across the South Side of the Sky still burns in their memories. When the neutronium starts giving out, whole steradians of the planet come unmoored and Olias in his flying boat, with the chieftain's blessing, must take wing to find refuge for his people. More a place for some R&R and healing like 14 hit points a day than anything else.

2. The Court of the Crimson King (Chaotic Evil)
Source: King Crimson, don'tcha know

In a brooding castle saturated by characters of gothic-Dylanesque enigmiasis, in a carnivalesque whirl of masks, puppets, clowns, jesters and other Ligottian signifiers of existential unmooring, there holds his court the Crimson King. "Presente!" cry also The Fire Witch, Yellow Jester, Purple Piper, Patterned Juggler, Grinding Wheel, Keeper of the City Keys, and Black Queen, tormenting and interrogating the 21st Century Schizoids who decide to don the masks of fantasy characters and journey there across the astral. I imagine the King in Yellow looking across the Lake of Hali from his dreary castle and saying "Damn, now that's a party!"

3. The Plains of Tarkus (Chaotic Neutral)
Source: Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Tarkus

RARR a grade school trapper-keeper panoply of kaiju-tastic critters that battle each other across the steppes and seas of a primal arena, kind of like Gamera Vs. Guiron but without the tinfoil dominatrices who eat child brains, sadly. We have the treaded tankadillo Tarkus hatched in a volcano, the pterodactyl-like Iconoclast, the Mass who is a metal horseshoe crab with grasshopper legs and missiles, the Manticore = giant sized manticore, and some crazy turreted fortress, and at the end Tarkus jumps off the cliffs of Dover and turns into .. Aquatarkus, not to be confused with Aquaman or Aqualung, although that would indeed be a teamup supreme. Don't listen to the lyrics, they are some kind of Vietnam war protest with Hammond organ and have nothing to do with the epic of Tarkus, entirely self-contained within the gatefold.

4. The Catacombs Under Broadway (Neutral Evil)
Source: Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

ok, a tribute band, but the slipperman looks great in color
Somewhere under a fictive Manhattan, Peter Gabriel playing a Nuyorican from the pantomime version of West Side Story stumbles and struts his way through a sideshow of instructive and disquieting monsters. There are Carpet Crawlers, a grand parade of lifeless packaging (which somehow has a Challenge Rating), the sinister characters Lilywhite Lilith and the Supernatural Anaesthetist, the seductive and, of course, vampiric pool of Lamias. Dungeon features include the cage, the cocoon, a chamber of 32 doors, and an underground river of rushing rapids and scree. Nasty, pustulent Slippermen await, attended by a Doctor who is happy to remove any and all external genitalia. At the end you find your brother ... or is it ... YOURSELF ... (whoa man)

All right. This panoply of freaks is mighty jolly dealing out disruptive life lessons to solo punk-kids armed with switchblade and spraycan. But how will they fare against a fully armed, name-leveled and fireball-blasting farrago of Dungeonchompers, I ask you?

5. The World of By-Tor (Neutral with Lawful Evil bad guys because Rush are libertarians)
Source: Rush, Caress of Steel and Fly By Night

this is canada, let's take "snow dog" literally
There are three locations in this cramped and unimpressive sub-world: a Generic Fantasy Burgh called Willowdale, down a river from there, a tower surrounded by a forest and dispiriting swamp; and a cave. In the tower dwells the Necromancer, who shoots wannabe Sabbath riffs from prisms to sap minds from afar. In the cave dwells the demonic Prince By-Tor, destined to be overcome by the Snow Dog unless you guys get to him first. The only interesting thing about this place is the face-heel turn; By-Tor starts out as the guy who banishes the Necromancer, while "Sweet Jane" inexplicably plays. Mostly, though, this is an embarrassing backwater of the multiverse, only good for telling yourself "I can read boxed text better than that guy," but at least adventurable as a cosm, unlike Cygnus X-1, the Temples of Syrinx, or the Red Barchetta Motorverse.

6. Blood Mountain (True Neutral)
Source: Mastodon's 2006, prog metal classic

THEIR MOST GAMEABLE ALBUM it should say on the sticker, but a gameability based on you all tripping balls both IRL and in character and you and your characters also multiclassing shamans for the duration. This gives you access to a taiga plane dominated by the skypole thrust of Blood Mountain, and whose ascent is complicated by colonies of birchmen, the thumping Cysquatch whose eye sees the future, and a Sleeping Giant it were not good to wake (stats as: a Richter 6.4 earthquake). Wolf form and trepanation may be of aid in evading the sharklike flying Hunters of the Sky and assessing the promise and omen of the Hand of Stone. At the summit awaits the mighty artifact, the Crystal Skull, which sloughs away the reptilian brain, allowing a new realm of emotional frankness and objectivity without the cringing need of self-preservation drumming at the back of the cranium. Or so it is whispered.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Free Republic of Garyburg: Days 1 and 2

A play report from the Mad Archmage campaign, protagonized by the Muleteers.

In the aftermath of the orcish invasion from the Castle of the Mad Archmage, the village of Garyburgh was left with only one guard (a young woman with green-dyed hair, the archer Winona), no innkeeper,and - as casualty reports came in from outlying houses and huts - no priest or village headman either.Only the adventuring parties who had defended it - the Muleteers' own recuperating Nixington and Erasmo, as well as the Lightning's Hand and Free Roamers - remained as an effective fighting force. The other Muleteers were blithely going shopping in the Grey City, visiting various establishments including the Charlatan's Guild, dogged by street urchins still hearing of how "them ums with the mule ridin' gnome" had given a whole sack of coppers to a mob of unruly apprentices. But in Garyburgh, a momentous council of the adventurers, Winona, and six landholding farmers was formed.
Young, but apparently, capable.
After debate and an election with colored pebbles (dice, in actuality) deposited in an urn, Winona became head of the Committee of Public Safety by a single vote, with the grand title Lady Protectress. The tax collector and his family having fled, a Free Republic was declared until such time as the Grey City should offer relations again. Mundane tasks such as burial and the building of barricades were delegated, a treasury (held by Dorn Ironfoot of the Lightning's Hand) and armory (held by Orna Jellek of the Roamers) established and contributed to.  Moreover, the tavern passed into public hands, and was renamed the Orc's Head, as the current name "Wizard's Wench" grated on the sensibilities of the female members of the committee. Nixington received a commission to limn the new sign.

Someone recalled that there was a free-ranging family of former adventurers, known as the Sharp Arrows, who lived the lives of hunters in a great patch of brambles known as the Twisted Thickets to the west. An embassy consisting of the Ygg-priest Grimnir and Farmer Magnus went out that very afternoon. Perhaps not the best choice, as it turned out the family were fanatics of Pholtus who had burned temples of Ygg, and seemed more interested in saving the village from heathen scum than helping. On the way back Grimnir and Magnus showed prudence in avoiding some eldritch thorn-men who were devouring a rabbit,and found their way back with little further incident.

On the next day it was decided that a scouting party enter the dungeon to find further intelligence of the orcs. Taking in some of the cow meat slaughtered in the raid for the kobolds, they were rewarded with a kobold on "punishment detail." This kobold, Yiktog, took forcible point and was quickly bisected by a giant ant, who dragged the unfortunate off leaving a clear path. After inquiring of the wizard Marquand the Merely Magnificent and finding nothing, they decided to explore in the area where the Demogorgon cultists had last been seen.

Here they found a spiral staircase going down and guarded by a lone juvenile orc,who was quickly taken by surprise and shot in the head despite some difficulties of working around a zone of silence spell. Pressing onward, the party went past the dormant Fountain of Snakes, which only coughed up a few rattlers, quickly slain. They found a secret door that led to the living quarters of the former cult, with a small amount of coins and jewelry, and eerie furnishings: a bed with snakeskin sheets, and hangings that suggestively formed demonic outlines. Pressing through, they came upon a small room with curtains on one side, ghastly bestial cult paintings on the walls, and ritual objects sitting around; at a shriek from beyond the curtain (actually, time being called on the session), everyone lost their nerve and  beat a hasty retreat for the exit.

Experience points yet to be awarded for snakes, juvenile orcs, and dealing with ants: 450.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Off-The-Shelf Fantasy Worlds

Having just finished Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, a Christmas present, I can see why it's such a divisive novel. It's a sharply told story, with lots of interesting challenges and characters. It has a smartest-guy-in-room protagonist who skates just on the right side of insufferable. It has, dare I say, a well-thought-out magic system that puts sorcery side by side with science.

But, but, but. The world in this novel - cramped, generic, no great vistas of space or time. If there is a fault of American fantasy authors, at least those who do not do their research like Wolfe and Martin or drink deep of the weird well like Vance and Clark Ashton Smith, it's that they have no sense of the strangeness of history. Their worlds (for example, Donaldson, Eddings, Jordan, Gary Gygax when he turned his pen to fiction, and now Rothfuss) tend to default to a kind of off-the-shelf pre-industrial idyll.

Although sometimes compared to the cod-archaism of a Renaissance faire, the better comparison of these fantasylands - aptly for the young age of the American republic - is to a nineteenth century sans gunpowder or steam. No feudal ties, ancien regime, or dead hand of the past burden these republican minds in a nominal monarchy. The sparse areas recall the Wild West, complete with the ever-present taverns and bartenders; farmed areas populated by sturdy Midwestern yeomen; cities as Dickensian hives of colorful crooks, pompous officials, and kindly benefactors; Rothfuss' University not too far away, either, from the Tom Brown's School Days playbook more famously cribbed by J. K. Rowling.  Chattel slavery stays away from fantasyland, perhaps a wish that by going back to mock-Europe and eliminating black and red people from the narrative, one can also wish away that ugly resonance of American history. (Credit must go to Orson Scott Card for confronting the mythology and history of the American frontier head-on in his Seventh Son series.)

In other regards the generic fantasyland shies away even from the strangeness of the nineteenth century and before. Yes, the trend has been to write that era's dialogue in the stilted literary language it left behind (David Milch's Deadwood, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain) but I'm talking about more intangible things. The rules on affectionate relations between the sexes, and within the sexes, were different. Honor and reputation counted for more. But the generic American fantasy writer tries to buy our sympathy by making the main characters "just like us" - or better - in personal and sexual mores.

Now British makers of fantasy worlds grow up in cities and countryside filled with ancient ruins, partitioned by ancient boundaries, ditches, roads and hedges. If anything, their sins of laziness are to view history too much from the modern eye, either gussied up in the twee accents of folklore or vulgarized in the manner of the "Horrible Histories" children's books into a panorama of gross-outs and sadism.

It's hard enough to find good psychological historical fiction - novels that present characters who are sympathetic but also believably alien, like Aubrey and Maturin, Patrick O'Brien's archetypal Tory-Whig duo from the age of fighting sail. But to construct a fantasy that comes with its own psychology -- the casual cruelties of Gene Wolfe under a sun that may go out any moment, for example, or the low-tech future African witchcraft of Nnedi Okorafor - that is what I would most see as worthwhile to read. Anything out there?

Monday, 29 December 2014

The Gungame

I would never have predicted I'd be playing the Ungame with one of my inlaw families over Christmas break. But that, plus a viewing of Fargo, leads to this.

Get a Fiasco ruleset. Assign characters, relationships, etc.

Then, instead of playing Fiasco, play a game within a game. Your lowlife Fiasco characters are trapped in a community rehab house, playing an hour's worth of the Ungame . Answer the questions from their point of view. The challenge is to tell a story through the playing of the game. Good luck!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Fire World

The next in the series of environment-specific, d20/d20/d20 tables. Hot enough for you? Water is next ... actually fresh water, as my plan calls for separate "water" and "sea" tables.

As a reminder, the table is also available in pop-up format.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

DFD Redux

Well, today my confidential agent passed on the copies of Death Frost Doom and Red & Pleasant Land obtained at Dragonmeet.

Red & Pleasant ... I'm still digesting. But here are the two most revelatory things about the
Raggi/Zak/Jez/et al. DFD rework/reprint, at least when it comes to adventure writing..

One, the writing starts out with a very brief rumor and some ways (aimed at the referee) to get the players into the situation. And then the adventure. There is no turgid, omniscient history drop ("and in the year 853 by the Dronish Calendar the Great Tetrarch decreed..."), no dull and generic village, no table of rumors.

The place has a history ...and mysteries ... but these are revealed as the players would see them, through the areas of the adventure. Anything that isn't revealable through the adventure isn't part of the text.

Two - and related in some way to One - the writing is aimed directly at the referee. Suggestions made, campaign-specific adjustments insinuated, multiple mechanical options outlined, previous printings and actual play runs referred to, soundtrack suggested. Again, there is no omniscient hokey-pokey, but neither are descriptions short. Likely player choices are boldfaced in the text and the ensuing effects described after.

What this all suggests is that history should be a scaffolding, to keep continuity correct and provide grist for specifics, but needs to be tucked away in an Appendix or even conveniently forgotten for the final product. The start of the adventure should draw the DM/reader in, allowing them to share in the discovery that the players will later experience in a much more immersive way.