Thursday, 25 September 2014

Back and Forth and Sideways in Time

Last time I offered a breakdown of all the different ways a fantasy world could be tied to our own. Commenters offered a couple of extra ways, which I'll incorporate into this next phase: further describing the plot moves available to the creative world-rigger with each arrangement. This post covers the first three of (now) 14 arrangements.

1. You are in Earth's far or mythic past. 


  • prehistoric animals are everywhere 
  • important names, maybe distorted, are recognizable as legendary heroes and places (Tolkien pulled this off with the lost continent called by some "Atalante" and reverse-engineered his language so that worked and also Artur means "noble lord")
  • euhemerism is in effect so the local king may be called Lord Horus and his shield is a hawk and his chief advisor is the one-eyed Wizard Odin and in the throne room hangs the Golden Fleece 
  • the maps have familiar if somewhat skewed shapes
  • early-civ signifiers like ziggurats, human sacrifice, eyeliner and chariots are mixed in with the magitech and rustless pillars
  • sense of boundless possibilities and newness. 

  •  "The magic is drying up" as in Larry Niven's stories
  • a cataclysm is impending that little of the weird stuff will survive past, paving the way for the world as we know it
  • you are trapped in a stasis cell destined to disgorge you sometime in Earth's timeline. Perhaps some deep-earth miners will find you. Have fun! 
2. You are in the present world's future.


  • the creatures and peoples that you meet show signs of fanciful mutation, alien origin, genetic engineering
  • your legends are of modern-day celebrities, your place names worn-down distortions, look hard enough and you can find the Statue of Liberty, beware the Belieber Cult 
  • the familiar maps are all marked up by global warming and nuclear megacraters and deserts and unspecified cataclysmic events 
  • artifacts of the old world are everywhere or incredibly rare, depending on how much time has passed, sometimes tended by engineers of St. Leibowitz indistinguishable from a priesthood 
  • sense of late-days malaise like in Dying Earth or Riddley Walker: the minerals are all mined, every tale has been told, there are no new genres of music just unfashionable ones, the sun could go out at any moment 


  • stasis works both ways, and some 21st century people who have just unwarped/ unfrozen/ unmirrored expecting utopia are having their expectations cruelly, cruelly broken 
  • they're trying to bring back the Technology of the Ancients but of course they're about to do it horribly wrong 
  • those deep-space near-lightspeed astronauts from the old order's final days are baaack 
3. You are in a parallel dimension, communicable with Earth.


  • strange wanderers who talk funny, dress funny, carry weird objects and drop completely baffling pop culture references 
  • doctrine and teaching of the Multiverse, every schoolchild knows 
  • someone in the distant past came, saw, conquered based on superior native technology, gravity, or disbelief of magic - and disappeared conveniently when things got hot 
  • ethereal creatures and travelers sing strangely familiar and catchy songs 

  • fair enough, you find the gateway in the basement of Castle Greyhawk 
  • one of those strange wanderers rolls up on you and is trying to convince you to make all these mixtures and build all these weird devices and is telling you when the next eclipse is going to be and you don't have the heart to tell him about 9th level spells 
  •  oh psych that other universe isn't exactly our Earth it's a parallel universe Earth where ..

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Bridges to Reality

Let's define "autonomous fantasy": a work about a world not our own, without attempting within the text to place the created world in relation to our own world (henceforth known as "Earth").

But if you look at literature, autonomous fantasy is actually pretty rare. George R. R. Martin's wildly popular world is one such world. But most of the D&D inspiration list "Appendix N" is not. Most of the works there have some kind of link between the fantasy world and the real Earth.

Below is a list of the ways in fantasy world-building to link the created world ("you") to our own Earth. The list is, of course, exhaustive (this claim is meant to stir the blood to objection, so object away!)

It is also only coincidence that there are twelve is the number of entries in the list and twelve is the number of sides of that funny-looking die you have lying on your table there. Please do not leave such momentous decisions as the very nature of reality to the whim of the roll.

1. You are in Earth's far or mythic past.
Examples: Tolkien's Middle Earth, Howard's barbarians, Moorcock's Melnibone

2. You are in the real world's future
Examples: Wolfe's New Sun, Lanier's Hiero, Gerber's Thundarr the Barbarian, Okorafor's Who Fears Death, Boulle's Planet of the Apes

3. You are in a parallel dimension, communicable to Earth
Examples: D&D's default cosmos, Pratt & De Camp's Incomplete Enchanter, Moorcock's multiverse

4. You are on a distant planet where fantasy/magic holds sway
Examples: Farmer's World of Tiers, Barker's Tekumel, McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern

5. Your world and Earth are both the dream/simulation/shadow of a higher world
Example; Zelazny's Amber series

6. You are in the dream of someone on Earth
Examples: Lovecraft's Dreamlands, McCay's Little Nemo

The rest have less of a fictional pedigree to my knowledge, but are no less fascinating.

7. You are in a simulation run by someone on Earth
8. Earth is the dream of someone on your world
9. Your world is the afterlife of Earth
10. Earth is the afterlife of your world
11. You are in a fiction maintained by someone on Earth (the literal truth, and the doctrine of Narrativism, no, not that kind of Narrativism)
12. The wall is absolute (Westeros and all other self-contained worlds such as Earthsea)

At any rate, each idea suggests itself strongly as a Big Reveal that is hinted at in the middle of a fantasy gaming campaign, and that outright drives events in the later stages of such a campaign. And in the next post: what implications each of these ideas carry.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

52 Baroque Encounter Starts

Go on then, have another.

This one is not quite so teeming as the previous, more practical, but such is the nature of the rules page it was spawned from. It's divided up into a number of smaller dice tables that still add up to 52 options. I think these eight categories pretty much cover anything you might throw at your players.

Click to enlarge.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

52 Baroque Treasures

Continuing the slow and artesanal release of the 52 Baroque Pages, the next production is 52 exotic treasures sorted more or less by value. Click to enlarge. Here's the generator link for instant pop-up results!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Chain Roach

Tell your comforting tales of mad wizards if you like. Human perversity, after all, is small, but unnatural selection is the chain roaches' mother and perhaps yours too.

The small form is a blattid centipede of seven to twelve roaches, joined ass-to-mouth in descending order of size, moving and digesting as one.  The chitin is as strong as human skin but give it four points of defense for small size and skittery inclinations, and it moves half as fast as you can trot. It does not have hit points, rather individual roaches, d6+6 of them. When you hit, one roach is squashed, plus one for every 4 damage you do, and roll d8-1 for how close to the head you hit, maximum = number of remaining roaches; all but that number of roaches scatter from the chain.

The main weapon of a small chain roach is disgust. On a successful hit ignoring armor it climbs on you. The next round and subsequent it has a 10% chance each of finding the mouth, nose, ear or nether orifices. Throwing off a roach chain requires a successful bare-hand hit, -2 if it is on your back parts. Invasion by roaches is completely attention-consuming and requires a saving throw to expel the roach chain. Each round you have a 5% chance of contracting disease from each roach chain on you and 15% from each roach chain in you.

On occasion multiple chain roaches will knit together to create a wide scarf roach of 5d6+6 individuals. Its statistics are similar, but more roaches. The front roaches will often acquire a couple of stabbing or slicing implements: broken knife blades, iron spikes, knitting needles, and soon. Thus, when crawling on you a scarf roach does not seek to invade, but instead stabs for d3 damage each time. The chance of infection per round is 10% if a scarf roach is just crawling on you and 20% if it has opened some wounds.

If ten or more roaches are scuttling around the area - either naturally or because some chain roaches have taken damage - any chain or scarf roach in the area will regenerate 1 roach per round from this pool.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Gencon 2014 Report

GenCon this year was one of those experiences where I knew what I wanted to do, I did it in moderation, and it went well, producing a satisfied feeling. I wanted to:

* Play and run old school roleplaying games, meeting up with like-minded players and writers.

I think my first ever appearance on the official GenCon Schedule was a success, running the Mule scenario. Despite a few glitches in my preparation, the players had fun facing the challenges and coming out with all six slots on the Necromule filled with named corpses.

The midnight run happened on my Five Rings group's party floor, and while a little more distracted by raucous goings on, drinking and equipment mishaps, did take the players to a different area of the Crypts with a strange social encounter and a rousing final combat against plague zombies, who yielded only two nameable corpses.

On Saturday I went and played in Tavis' ACKS scenario using a Dyson Logos map and exploring an ancient tomb. A really good group of creative role-players assembled, including Tavis' 12 year old son, and I'm grateful he found space for me. We ate a burger, discussing insider stuff about the Dwimmermount kickstarter with one of the backers, and then headed off to our party floor to play a really good off-the-grid Ars Magica introductory scenario with GM Rob. Even better, Brian "Trollsmyth" Murphy stopped by briefly to say hi.

* Try new games of all descriptions.

Thursday morning kicked off with a definite "SCORE" at Gaming On Demand- getting first pick and picking Jason Morningstar's run of The Warren, an Apocalypse World game that does Watership Down/Bunnies & Burrows. Jason's scenario was a bayou with appropriate creatures and challenges, including a memorable Cajun raccoon named Boupignon. AW rules sets seem to hit the right notes between rules-light and cool subsystems. In particular my rabbit, Tunguska, made good use of the Seer procedure in which the other players write single words on pieces of paper and the seer has to make up a vision involving them.

I did the usual walking the dealer hall and trying new games. I can report that a) playing a demo and then not being able to buy the game because it will be "out in November" is a frustrating experience b) if you walk on to an empty demo table it may be because the game sucks; good games seem to create their own buzz and interest c) so the only game I played and got was the PvP deckbuilder Star Realms, whose computer version is indeed fiendishly addictive. Also bought the usual ton of miniatures and accessories, and got but did not play Hillfolk - my impulse is to start with anything but the.vanilla-Hebrews default setting.

Also memorable - bottom feeding on the party floor (thanks Eric, I think) with weird card games using Magic mechanics for questionable simulational purposes, like Ultimate Combat where mana is "conditioning" and "fighting spirit" and so forth and creatures are combat moves, all illustrated with amateur photos of karate dojos -- or god help me, Furoticon where the mana is one of four genders and you can send minions to block your enemy's erotic assault before your orgasm points or whaatever are worn down.

* Do some networking.

As well as catching up and connecting with the new brand manager for the L5R CCG, and other people in that enterprise, I went to a seminar "Gaming as Other" where useful advice was given about helping to diversify the gaming world, and made some more connections there. There is even some possibility of a seminar next year on academic research and non-computer gaming. Would be great if I could wrangle my research fund to pay for the trip...

We're all getting older. There is less wild partying,more retiring at a reasonable hour, more reaching out and getting into new spheres of activity. Jet lag kicks my ass, too. But as a way to spend part of your vacation it's not half bad.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Running 5th Edition

I wanted to introduce D&D to my other brother-in-law's kids (age, 9, 13, and 15 with the latter having played 4th edition before). The best thing for their gaming future was to give them the industry standard experience. So I bit the bullet and downloaded 5th edition Basic, figuring that what with all the conversion resources out there I could lead them to the familiar Citadel of Evil.

They never got there but they had a blast, over two sessions. Below are some of the pro and con features of my experience.

PRO: Character creation is long by old school standards, but the best parts are backgrounds and their associated roleplaying hooks. Backgrounds are great and the implicit idea that splatbooks will focus on them rather than mechanically new classes is genius. Choosing the non-optimal background from the starter set gave two characters some interesting "multiclass" dynamics as an ex-acolyte wizard and an ex-criminal fighter who in action operated more like a combat rogue. It is great to have the mechanical elements pull one way and the roleplaying elements pull another way.

The three starting characters came raring out of creation with reasons to adventure: take back the halfling folk-hero's village while ducking minions of the tyrant; defend the wizard's Zen-like faith against the more military offshoot of the same (literally, a case of Mumon vs. Musashi); find a lost heirloom stolen from the reforming highway robber.

Trinkets are a thing I have used before so they also provided nice hooks, in particular the coincidence of "defend a sacred text" with "diary with seven pages missing" would have been immediate plot fodder in a longer campaign.

Combat, when it came, was very simple and classic-feeling. I ported in some of my "good ideas" like morale rolls, and used Stan Shinn's monster conversion formula for a random stirge encounter and for the climactic battle with the hobgoblins and evil wizard occupying the halfling village. Using this system, 12 hobgoblins and their boss were a very even match for the 3 PCs and handful of halfling refugees, and that only because the kids showed excellent tactical sense, doing a thorough recon, and shooting from high up in trees, by preference at the hobgoblin bowmen. If I had used the 2d8+1 HP, AC 18, +2d6-damage-when-team-fighting ho-gos from the Dragon Queen monster list, the good guys would have been utterly crushed. As it was, two of the PCs and one NPC emerged successfully from the Land of Death Saves.

Knowing how tough monsters actually are in 5th edition, the leveling numbers make a little more sense. The 300 xp needed to get from 1st to 2nd is almost like a 0-level "funnel" now that classic cannon fodder like orcs are best matched to 2nd and 3rd level parties. From there things proceed pretty much as they do in 3rd edition and my own old school rules.

Inspiration I had doubts about, but for these starting roleplayers it was a good, limited and non-intrusive way to have them think about whether their actions in the game reflected their character concept at the end of a session.

Nine-year-old boys have a hard time playing Lawful Good.

CON: My biggest gripe with 5th was the lack of class role differentiation. Spells and special abilities themselves muddle the classes (fighters can self-heal and clerics get a sweet damage spell, for instance), but this doesn't bother me as much. It's more the decision to boil the mechanical class benefits for skills, weapons and equipment down to a proficiency bonus which starts at +2. This means that a rogue isn't much better at lockpicking than a fighter or wizard with a DEX bonus; and in our party, the melee combat beast was the lucky wizard who rolled high stats for STR and DEX as well as INT, meaning he did the best damage with the quarterstaff and, once buffed with Mage Armor, had the highest AC. The Santa-Claus-like handout of ability numbers, "highest of 4d6" plus race, subrace, class and background ability bonuses further tips the balance away from class and toward abilities, so that a +0 bonus was the new -1, and +2 and above was standard.

Being able to cast spells in the face of melee further de-differentiates the classes. We had a two wizard, one fighter party but there was definitely no feeling of "protect the squishy wizards!"

I can see the logic of combat and, as others have said and I found out, it makes for tough experiences. At the same time, the challenge is definitely oriented toward individual fights rather than resource management over a longer haul, due to the healing and spell recovery effects from short and long rests.

But the point is, we had a good time and I feel like I know what I need in order to run this game in a fluid way. I will definitely be getting the Starter Set as a present for the kids ... if I can find a game store that has any in stock, that is ...