Thursday, 19 October 2017

If You Go Down to the Woods Today...



Whether the jungles of South East Asia, the taiga of Siberia, or the ancient mixed woodlands of Europe, forests fascinate me. I like being in them and I like thinking about them: to be in a forest is to be completely surrounded in a gaia-like ecosystem, made all the more interesting because it obscures your vision and plays tricks with sound. This means that exploring a forest is a bit like exploring an overland dungeon - you never know what is around the next corner.

There is also some sort of primitive fear - the fear of a Savannah-dwelling early human/primate - of those dark, closed-off, cool spaces. To stand in an open space looking at a wood is like standing at the threshold of another, different world. A world where you don't belong. A wild place.

Bill Bryson described being in a forest nicely in A Walk in the Woods:

Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in the woods and you only sense it. They are vast, featureless nowheres. And they are alive.

But there are difficulties running games in forests realistically, by which I mean, without just being yet another bunch of adventure locales except featuring treants, dryads and wood elves rather than derro and drow and whatnot. Taking advantage of, and emphasising, the uniqueness of the forest as an environment. I think there are chiefly three sets of problems.

1) First, as Bryson also puts it, when describing the experience of actually walking through a forest for day after day:

There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods. It’s where you were yesterday, where you will be tomorrow. The woods is one boundless singularity. Every bend in the path presents a prospect indistinguishable from every other, every glimpse into the trees the same tangled mass. For all you know, your route could describe a very large, pointless circle. In a way, it would hardly matter.  
At times, you become almost certain that you slabbed this hillside three days ago, crossed this stream yesterday, clambered over this fallen tree at least twice today already. But most of the time you don’t think. No point. Instead, you exist in a kind of mobile Zen mode, your brain like a balloon tethered with string, accompanying but not actually part of the body below. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing. At the end of the day you don’t think, “Hey, I did sixteen miles today,” any more than you think, “Hey, I took eight-thousand breaths today.” It’s just what you do.

Existing in a mobile Zen mode is nice, but not really what an RPG session is all about. In other words, exploring a forest is fun and interesting, but in reality also full of nothing-much-at-all in terms of excitement, danger, and adventure.

You can add excitement, danger and adventure with random encounters, of course, or hex locations, or even pre-planned encounters, for that matter, but at some stage it seems to me that if you're doing that too much you're not really being faithful to the nature of being in a forest as opposed to other sorts of environment. Emptiness and featurelessness is part of what journeying through a forest is.

2) When you are walking through a forest, you get surprised by things all the time. It's not an environment for humans (unless perhaps you are born into a tribe in the Amazon, and even Amazonian tribespeople manipulate their "forest" environment a lot). Your senses don't function well there: your main strength is sight, which is rendered defunct by the lack of visibility, and in comparison to just about any animal you could name, you have pathetically rudimentary senses of smell and hearing. The long and short of it is: whatever is round the corner knows you are there before you know about its existence. You are forever flushing grouse, being scared out of your skin by sudden bird alarm calls, and trying to identify the sources of mysterious movements in the undergrowth. You could be hunted and stalked with embarrassing ease by any serious predator.

This would make for good natural world as survival horror gaming (there is death lurking everywhere and it will get you) but not, I think, a long-term campaign.

3) Forests are in a sense featureless, but if at any given moment you stop while walking through one, you will be confronted by a radically different geography than you would have five minutes earlier. There are inclines, crevasses, streams, clearings, fallen trees, boulders, pools, a whole array of different features swallowed up by the trees and undergrowth and suddenly revealed to you as you pass by. More than in any other environment, the surroundings really matter - there is stuff everywhere.

So a realistic encounter in a forest has to take account of that. Want to fire an arrow? Deal with the fact that it's more difficult for your target not to be in cover. Want to creep up on an enemy? Deal with twigs and dried leaves everywhere. It's not so much that there's plenty of scenery to interact with, it's that you are overwhelmed by scenery; you have scenery up to the eyeballs, more scenery than you know what to do with.

This, among other things, makes forest adventuring - doing justice to what makes a forest a forest - one of the true last great frontiers of gaming.

Friday, 29 September 2017

10 Yoon-Suin Dungeon Ideas

Dwarf fortress infested with Tulpas.

Secret crystal dragon treasure stash guarded by enchanted beasts (shishi, chinthe, etc.)

Observatory taken over by its automata caretakers.

Mine whose slaves have uncovered ancient magicks transforming them into ab-humans.

Great forge on the coast which uses sea water for cooling: it has created steam devils as a side effect and they have killed the owners.

Tomb of an ogre-mage trader on the back of a wandering giant tortoise.

Maze built by fakirs out of giant butterfly wings as a meditation aid to walk through 'mindfully'.

Major rakhosh's dwelling place: on the underside of a giant waterlilly leaf in a vast lake.

Quarry originally used for making statues; galeb duhr have been disturbed and they now use the quarry to store 'statues' of their own in the form of corpses.

Inverted pyramid home of an archmage which balances on a mountain peak which rises through the middle of a glacier.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Risus-based Hairy Maclary Story Game


Hairy McLary from Donaldson's Dairy
Charismatic Leader 4

Hercules Morse
As Big as a Horse 4

Bottomly Potts
Covered in Spots 4

Muffin McLay
Like a Bundle of Hay 4

Bitzer Maloney
All Skinny and Bony 4

Schnitzel von Krumm
With a Very Low Tum 4

Scarface Claw
The Toughest Tom in Town 4

It practically plays itself!

Thursday, 21 September 2017

There'll be no accusations, just friendly crustaceans...

On G+ somebody asked about an underwater campaign setting I was supposedly writing, called "Unit Swim" or "Union Swim" or something. This tickled me tremendously, but it also gives me the opportunity to talk about Behind Gently Smiling Jaws a bit - which I haven't done in a while.

One of the rules I made myself promise I would follow, pretty early on, is that nothing in BGSJ would come from or be based on other existing works of fantasy. It all had to be either completely novel or based off real world history or legend. This has worked well in large part, but has created a real sticking point in one area of the world map - the Underwater Ziggurats. These are remnants of alien cities on the sea floor which the crocodile supposedly saw in some lost era, akin to Atlantis - the conceit being that aliens did actually colonise the ocean bottom millions of years ago and the crocodile was witness to this. It's based on the Yonaguni Monument/Formation.

So far so good, but it turns out it is really difficult not to turn this area of the campaign setting into Deep Ones and Cthulhu and Father Dagon. Coming up with a concept of aliens living in underwater cities which owes nothing to Lovecraft is hard. His work is practically the first and last word on the subject.

I'm working on it.

Another stumbling block is more practical: format. I know that producing an eight-volume slip case is a really bad idea. A really, really bad idea. A really, really, really bad idea. But sometimes bad ideas sound very good - like that decision to eat a Double Decker after lunch, or that decision to miss the last train home on a night out, or that decision to have a cigarette when you know you shouldn't.... The multi-volume slip case idea just will not relinquish its hold.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus - World Landscape Campaign Setting

world landscape is a made-up backdrop of beautiful European scenery in a painting. They are arguably examples of the shadow fantasy genre. Here is one:



A: The Gerontocracy of Basiney. A city where one in a thousand citizens is born an immortal struldbrug, who gradually accrues more and more wealth until he wields immense power and influence (but is too decrepit to enjoy it). A place in which corporatism not merely dominates but has run amok, like renaissance Florence or early modern Amsterdam as imagined by Gordon Gekko.

B: The Platinum Mountain. Ruled by a white dragon demigod who spins platinum thread, mined by his dwarf serfs, into webs and coils which he then magically animates into automata to serve him.

C: Servasser, the Sea Wolf Port. A fishing settlement which now lies largely abandoned; the population of fishermen and fishwives were infected by lycanthropy which spread through them like a plague. Now they inhabit its dilapidated ruins and raid the surrounding seas to assuage their ravenous hunger.

D: Gwenteliver's Castle. A fortress owned by the storm giant Gwenteliver, who surrounds herself with human slaves who she gradually interbreeds with giant insects, reptiles and other beasts. Her collection of art is unrivaled and strongly desired by almost all the Gerontocrats of Basiney.

E: The Smugglers' Cove. A small, secluded bay where smugglers from the neighbouring land of Celquinox come to liaise with rogue traders sneaking goods for trade past the tax collectors of Basiney. The people of Celquinox are a race of mutes who extend their necks with metal bands until their vocal chords no longer function; they employ their children to communicate on their behalf with strangers, and talk to each other with secret gestures they do not teach to outsiders.

F: The Entrance to the Spirals. An underground network of caves extending far beneath the surface of the earth, created in the ancient past by a burrowing worm which dug in endless repeating spiral tunnels. Somewhere these spirals connected with the tunnels of underground denizens such as the duergar, neogi, kuo-toa and the like, and they now throng with busy subterranean life which boils up from the bowels of the earth towards the surface.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Because Allah Loves Wondrous Variety

I do the odd bit of volunteering with a local wildlife conservation trust. A lot of this involves what is euphemistically called "grassland management" - what this typically means is cutting and raking up vast swathes of grass and other vegetation in order to allow tiny and obscure native species of plants to flourish. We arrive at some very remote and windswept location and destroy the peace for a day with strimmers, leaving it looking like a sheep that's been sheared - where once there was a jungle of plant life, now there is an open and empty patch of stubble. Like the deforestation of the Amazon in miniature. (But the main thing is that there's now a bit more growing space for a rare little flower that looks like a blob of moss and which nobody except a few enthusiasts has ever heard of.)

What I've learned from all of this is that, just when you think you have a feel for how much variety there is in the natural world, you find out you don't know the half of it. Grasslands are unbelievably varied. Today I was in a more-or-less unique habitat - a strip of land about a mile long and no more than 100 yards wide along the side of a river. Mine run-off containing traces of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead had been put into the river during the industrial revolution and gradually this had seeped into the banks at various locations up and down its length. While the river is now pristine, the heavy metals have remained in the soil. This was one such location, and it had resulted in a blend of plant life that you would find nowhere else on earth - including a sub-species that you find literally nowhere else other than these slivers of land on the upstream banks of the Tyne.

And that was just in the afternoon. In the morning we had been at an abandoned quarry where the limestone scree happened to produce the perfect conditions for a certain rare alpine flower. The site could have been no more than 400 yards in diameter. Go outside of that limit in any direction and you would be in a different habitat altogether and noticeably so.

The world is a patchwork of different environments so multitudinous it is almost mind-boggling. When creating a hexmap we tend to paint in very broad brush strokes - forest, grassland, desert, etc. This makes life easy, but causes us to miss out on some benefits that thinking in very granular detail could bring. Consider: what different types of grassland might exist in a world where there is not just mine run-off but also materials left over from magical duels? What types of unique habitats might sprout up around the corpse of dragons? What might the existence of a megadungeon do to the area around the entrance? And what kind of druids, treants, and other guardians would exist to protect these unique environments?

Monday, 11 September 2017

Good DMing Advice; or, God Loves a Trier

One of my favourite bits of DMing advice comes, in all places, in the 2nd edition DMG. Zeb Cook (I am paraphrasing because I don't have it to hand) basically foreshadows some OSR thinking in one place only, which comes in his discussion of stat requirements for character classes. Don't let players access any class they want, he recommends; keep the stat requirements for rangers, paladins and so forth strictly. Encourage players to play the stats they are given, so to speak. Let the dice fall where they lay; so your PC didn't end up getting the 17 CHA required to be a paladin. Stop being titty-lipped about it - you can play a fighter who always wanted to be paladin but failed (or hasn't yet succeeded).

In other words, a fighter who wants to be paladin is already way more interesting than a paladin. That's a PC with a ready-made goal and pretty much ready-made personality too. He may not have special paladin powers but being "awesome" isn't what the game is really about. It is more about trying hard and applying yourself and getting involved.

You can tell 2nd edition was very much focused at a younger audience - this is the kind of advice that's important for kids, whereas adults should in theory at least have already learned those lessons. But the wider point holds for all ages: it's good for starting PCs to have goals. It makes the PC part of the world and gives the player an impetus to drive things along, which helps the DM tremendously.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Nevelskoy's Privateers

The realm of the Tsar has finally finished its vast Westward expansion and made its way to the mouth of the Amur River and the great island of Sakhalin. Nothing of this is known to the inhabitants of the Japanese islands, but the world has far from lain still since their isolation began. Now Russian explorers, adventurers and pirates are beginning to make their way across the Sea of Japan - albeit in small numbers. Here is an expedition of such men: a blend of banditry and science with a common aim of invasion and theft.

Leader: Gennady Nevelskoy. A fur trader, explorer, pioneer and buccaneer who has spent two decades charting the waters of Kamchatka and Sakhalin and trading with their natives. Now he has headed south to Vladivostok and formed an expedition to try to capture Nipponese to bring them to the Tsar - or, failing that, to bring back treasures at the very least.

HD 4, AC 16, AB +5, ATT Sabre, two pistols, Move 120
*Can fire both pistols in the same round if both shots are directed at the same target
Possessions: Splint mail armour, sabre, two pistols with ivory butts [350 sp each], powder and 50 shots, gold signet ring [300 sp], ruby-studded gold thumb ring [1,000 sp], silver belt buckle [50 sp]

Second in Command: "Fyodor" the Koryak. A native of Kamchatka who Nevelskoy befriended in his youth; the two saw in each other a desperation to make the world their own, and quickly became partners. Fyodor's real name was unpronounceable to Nevelskoy, who called his comrade after Saint Fyodor the Black, a Duke from the middle-ages who married a Mongol princess. Fyodor comes from the warlike Koryak tribe and wears the lamellar armour of his people; in a fight his brown eyes shine with dangerous glee.

HD 5, AC 20, AB +6, ATT Axe, javelins, Move 120
*Fights in a frenzy; once in melee he does not retreat and fights to -9 hit points
Possessions: Axe, 4 javelins, lamellar armour (seal leather and metal), religious charms (reindeer horn carvings of indistinct figurines)

Clergyman-scientist: Kirill Laxman. A Lutheran priest from Finnmark who came as a missionary to Siberia and hence to Japan. While nominally aiming at conversion his true passion is the recovery of flora, fauna and ancient artefacts which he can take back home to his museum in Irkutsk - or even to the Tsar in St Petersburg. He is middle-aged, bespectacled, and balding, but as tough as a life spent in the wilds of Siberia would suggest.

HD 3, AC 14, AB +1, ATT Pistol, knife, Move 120
Possessions: Spectacles, binoculars, note book, St Christopher necklace [100 sp], pocket watch [priceless in Japan], hide armour

Geographer: Vasily Golovnin. A minor nobleman and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, aiming at least notionally to chart the coastline of Nippon and, in particular, easy landing locations. In connection with this he wants any and all information available about the lay of the land, the locations of rivers, and so on. However, he also has an alternative secret goal which is to do away with Nevelskoy and Fyodor, paid for by the duo's enemies and rivals in Vladivostok. He plans to do this through concealing their deaths as an accident or, at last resort, poisoning their food. He is tall, thin, with an unhappy straight line of a mouth and sunken eyes.

HD 3, AC 16, AB +1, ATT Pistol, sabre, Move 120
Possessions: Telescope, compass, charts of Kamchatka and Sakhalin, hide armour, vial of arsenic

Crew: A mixture of outlaws, runaways, dispossessed noblemen, brigands, adventurers, escapees, mercenaries, thugs and petty criminals, united under Nevelskoy’s man’s-man leadership toward the common goal of getting rich off the exploitation of exotic wildernesses.

They are as tough as hard leather, as mean as snakes, as gluttonous as dogs, and as clever as magpies. There are 24 of them in total.

HD 1+2, AC 16, AB +2, ATT Sabre, axe or spear; and/or musket, Move 120

Ship: The Speshnoy is a small sloop with a shallow hull capable of being moored on land. It carries supplies of rations, fresh water, rope, and other such items. It also contains 6 sacks of gunpowder, each weighing 10 kilogrammes [worth 200 sp each], and 56 one-litre flasks of vodka [worth 50 sp each]. Locked in a chest, to which only Nevelskoy has the key, is 20,000 sp worth of gold bullion in irregular small slabs, for bribes and emergencies.

Camp: The Russian crew have created a camp in a cove on the beach. The Speshnoy has been dragged ashore and there are tents placed in a semi-circle around it; there are always four guards on watch during the night. During the day the crew roam the forests nearby in groups of 3-6, hunting, foraging, and searching for natives to kidnap or items to steal.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Dictionary Monsters

For years now, off and on, I've been meaning to write this post - but kept forgetting. Patrick's most recent post gives me the necessary spur to do it.

It all began back when I was living in Japan. My then-girlfriend had this electronic dictionary which resembled a mini-laptop; it contained more or less every English and Japanese dictionary ever published, and allowed you to search and cross reference between them in very powerful ways. (It was the kind of thing now rendered defunct by ubiquitous smart phones and Google; dictionary websites and Google Translate are much more superficial but allow the language learner to translate simple words and phrases just as quickly if they don't mind some inaccuracies and decontextualisation.) One day I was bored for some reason and started looking up simple words in it in pocket dictionaries, like "cat" and "table", wondering how they had been defined. I suppose I was entertained by the sheer redundancy of having the word "cat" in your bog-standard definitional dictionary; in what universe are there people who are good enough at English to be able to read and understand the definition of "cat", but who don't already know what a "cat" is?

Of course, such words are in there because of the need for completeness and because the mother of all dictionaries, the OED, is not really a catalogue of definitions but a catalogue of word histories and genealogies. But you get the idea: it's interesting to imagine an obscure people living in a parallel reality who understand our language but are fascinated by concepts such as "cat" and "table" as they page through our dictionaries.

(If you're curious - or if you are one of those people in that parallel reality - a cat is a "small animal with soft fur that people often keep as a pet" and a table is a "piece of furniture that consists of a flat top supported by legs".)

The interesting thing about these definitions is they don't really tell you a great deal. They flirt at descriptiveness without being particularly descriptive. A cat is a "small animal with soft fur" - so it could have six legs or two; it could have a single cyclopean eye; it could have no head at all but eyes and mouth located in its torso. Looked at this way, dictionary definitions are quite inspiring and lead to all sorts of flights of fancy. Consider:

"A domesticated carnivorous mammal that typically has a long snout, an acute sense of smell, non-retractable claws, and a barking, howling, or whining voice."

"A tailless amphibian with a short squat body, moist smooth skin, and very long hind legs for leaping."

"A gregarious burrowing plant-eating mammal, with long ears, long hind legs, and a short tail."

"An eight-legged predatory arachnid with an unsegmented body consisting of a fused head and thorax and a rounded abdomen."

"A long limbless reptile which has no eyelids, a short tail, and jaws that are capable of considerable extension."

"A large perching bird with mostly glossy black plumage, a heavy bill, and a raucous voice."

"A heavily built omnivorous nocturnal mammal of the weasel family, typically having a grey and black coat."

What images do they call up in your mind, once you've got past the actual image of the real-world creature referred to? What does the large perching bird say with its raucous voice? Why does the heavily built weasel wear a coat? Why is such prominence given to the domesticated carnivorous mammal's non-retractable claws? What direction to the long limbless reptile's jaws extend in?

Seen in this way, the dictionary becomes a source of great inspiration for monster design. You could, if you were minded to, create an entire setting that way: replacing all the real world animals with new creatures based only on their dictionary descriptions. A world in which people farm sheep and cows but they're not our sheep and cows; hunt foxes but they're not our foxes; put down traps for mice but they're not our mice....and so on and so forth. Alternatively, it's just a way to come up with something different when the juices aren't flowing. What's in the next cavern in the dungeon? Ok, a snake...but its jaws extend forwards.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Old Farts Solve Mysteries

The other day I was sitting in a cafe in Hexham, a rather eccentric old market town in Northumberland, just watching the world go by. Like everywhere in Northumberland, Hexham is a weird mix of the very wealthy and the very rural - two worlds co-existing side-by-side, one in which everybody is a solicitor who shops at Waitrose; the other in which everybody is a farm labourer whose parents are cousins. (China Mieville missed a trick with The City & The City - he should have set it in the English countryside without a doubt.)

A group of old men - old farts, let's face it - were sitting on the next table on the pavement, having what seemed like a regular meeting. They were old friends who may very well have been meeting up for a cuppa every day for the last 40 years; that was the kind of vibe they gave off. However, you couldn't, if you had tried, come up with four more different characters.

One of them was big, Jabba the Hutt corpulent, wearing a black waxed jacked despite it being summer, and with his thinning hair plastered to his scalp with styling gel in a manner that suggested he had scooped fistfuls of the stuff out of a bucket and lathered his head with it an hour previously. But, to top it off, he had somehow managed to get what looked like a half dozen or so pigeon feathers stuck into it. He didn't seem to be aware of this, and his friends were seemingly too polite to tell him, but they were right there, plain as the nose on your face. I imagine his name was Derek.

Next to Derek was another portly character but one who carried it with that sort of rotund dignity which some older men can pull off - he was the kind of guy who would pat his stomach after dining on a dessert of a cheese platter and port and announce "I always say that a belly on an older man signifies a certain joie de vivre!" He was wearing an expensive blazer and a turtle-neck sweater and had a neat beard. He looked like a retired art salesman. Let's call him Jeremy.

Standing chatting to them, obviously not quite having got round to ordering a drink yet, was a more wiry character dressed head to foot in expensive cycling gear as though he had literally just finished completing a stage in the Tour de France five minutes earlier. Skin-tight blue lycra, slipstream helmet, the works. He had the body that most fit 55-60 year old men have: skinny everywhere except an overhanging pot belly they can never get rid of. He was plainly having his mid-life crisis 15 years too late. He looked like a Brian.

And pulling up a chair as I sat there was somebody we'll call Gary - tall, thin and slightly dreary, a long drink of water. He was an ageing hippy sort, wearing a colourful woollen garment I can only describe as a smock, sandals, and ragged denim shorts. He was the kind of guy who has thumb rings. I think he may have been wearing a CND badge. What I am absolutely sure of is that he was carrying a Waterstone's bag and brought out of it to show his friends a biography of Bob Marley he had just bought.

I felt immediately like somebody ought to write a novel about Derek, Jeremy, Brian and Gary. They were, clearly, a cabal of wizards, vampires, or occult investigators. Why else would they be meeting up like that, except to discuss the sacrifice of virgins or plot the assassination of a shaman in Mongolia via astral projection?

Better yet, they were self-evidently NPCs in a campaign of Call of Cthulhu, instantiated into our reality from a gaming session taking place among a group of teenagers in a flat nearby. These gamers had concentrated so hard, and smoked so much weed, that their shared imaginings had actually manifested themselves corporeally in the form of these men sitting in Hexham high street. That could surely be the only explanation, couldn't it?

The good thing about Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness, I always think, is that you only have to really look just around the corner for inspiration to smack you in the face. With D&D you have to work a little bit harder. Fantasy is one thing. The real world is a much stranger place.