Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It's A Choice

Yes, I could be nicer. I could be less unnecessarily vitriolic. I could couch my discourse in softer, kinder, gentler tones, and make a better first impression. There are other choices than to behave rudely or insult people. There are ways that people can “share ideas” in a civil manner.

I’ve discovered through experience that people who counsel such an approach usually do so from a fairly pretentious position: “In this community (where I am respected and unquestioned), we don’t raise our voices except in an appropriate manner.” For appropriate, please read as, “acceptable;” “agreeable,” “acquiescent.”

When taking a contrary position to anything, particularly something as established as the religious fervor that has become some tenets of D&D, the more kindly your rhetoric, the more easily you can be ignored. Or if you will, the more easily your opponents can hedge and “politely” agree with your opinion without, in fact, changing their behavior or their propaganda. This is a marvelous sort of inclusion; as a manipulative technique it works wonders.

In fact, I have no interest in being included. I feel rather sickened by what I’m reading and seeing on various websites about the game, and I believe firmly that I am not alone. Oh, I may be the most vocal, the most vitriolic, the least respectful and so on. I may be the dancing monkey in this particular performance. I may represent the methods of shock value. But I assure you, my gentle reader, that despite my ungentle approach I sincerely believe everything I’m writing.

Now, I don’t propose that there are a great many who would agree with me. I think, honestly, there are very, very few. But that doesn’t matter. This very few and I have similar emotional reactions to what we’re seeing and what we’re feeling with regards to this game. We love the game. We love playing it, we love working on it, we love the design aspects and the free, unrestricted possibilities in what can and cannot be changed.

I suspect I am not the only person to view the interior of a games shop with a pervasive sense of disgust—at the cheap materials, at the obvious attempts to obfuscate the potential aspects of the game, at the contrived, exploitive nature of the products and so on. I don’t believe I’m the only person to have players arriving in my world saying, geez, you wouldn’t believe the shit out there and the way people are playing. I don’t believe I’m alone in finding 4e laughable.

So I rant. I foam at the mouth, I swear a lot, I act inappropriately, I disturb the lovingly built blogs of other RPG players. I don’t bother to discuss, I eschew dignity and I embarrass the crap out of myself. I do it for that small minority who feels uncomfortable doing the same, though they might want to. I do it to help me sleep at night, knowing I’ve pushed the occasional miserable grandmother with her talk of polite and appropriate behavior down the stairs. It brings me a tremendous sense of peace.

Whatever message that’s lost in my methods, that’s fine with me. I’m really only writing to one in a hundred of the readers who pass me by, because I only expect to be understood that often.

Yes, I know, I'm deluded. I've created a little fantasy justification that allows me the freedom to write what I wish without guilt. It's a paper world all of my own.

Or it would be, if you weren't reading this. Or if you weren't going to come back and read me tomorrow and the day after.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Back In The Day

Whenever I read anyone describing the finer points about early RPG history, I am stuck for any personal recollection that would allow me to relate to the nostalgic euphoria that was supposed to exist at that time. Yes, D&D was new. Yes, we liked the game. Yes, it was different, and yes we were interested to explore the game’s possibilities.

We were not, however, orgasming every time we played. Which we would have to have been doing for us to have reached the degree of excitement constantly portrayed by present writers talking about the good old days.

A few things that I remember from 1979, when I began playing, at the age of 15.

The game, while complicated, was not completely out of our experience. Most of us had been playing Avalon Hill games for years (I started at 11) such as Squad Leader, Rail Baron, Arab-Israeli Wars and so on. We had played various other war games, and we had a sophisticated sense of how to adapt a game’s rules to our own uses. What I mean is, we changed rules, all the time, whenever we thought they were stupid. From day one we were throwing out or imposing new rules onto the D&D system without the slightest hesitation. No one thought that was odd. It was a game, not a religion, and it was what we had been doing with every game since learning RISK at age 8. Fuck the rules, we’re going to play it this way.

Neither I, nor any of my first group of associates, had any idea who Dave Arneson or Gary Gygax were. They were names in the book. We didn’t care to discover the background behind those names because we didn’t care. Do you know the names of the people who designed Monopoly? Or RISK? Well, I don’t. What difference would it make? Would I play the game differently? Would I be less inclined to change the “house rules”? Hell no.

Regarding the use of modules for gaming. Well, let me begin by saying that we all knew at the time, even at our age and in those far off days, that modules were simple-minded pieces of second-rate spewed crap, evident by the pathetic quality of writing and design that went into them. We did not buy them, we borrowed them from people whose parents had money and were a soft touch. We did not excitedly masturbate our way through them, we laughed at their pathetic, juvenile text and then modified them as necessary. If I or any of my teenage friends had read any of the actual descriptions out loud, there would have been cries of, “Holy shit, what ten year old wrote this crap?” and “Turn the crap off and just tell us what we see!”

Even at 15 we read actual books, you know: Ellison and Heinlein and Moorcock and LeGuin. We knew what good writing was. And what it wasn’t. Gygax may have been a hotshot game creator, but a writer he wasn’t. The same went for every “trailblazer” who had a hand in making those modules. I remember clearly the finger-down-throat gesture was often used in describing our personal opinions about the given material.

Let me describe a few of the rules that, right off, we knew were absolutely not going to work in our campaigns. Let me emphasize again that this was 1979, just as we here in Canada first discovered AD&D.

Alignment was a complete joke. I only knew one DM who played it dogmatically, and he was so anal as to be insufferable. As I understand it, he eventually became the west coast distributor for Magic cards, so I suppose he was genetically programmed that way. For the rest of us, right off we knew we weren’t going to play any stupid rules telling us what we were allowed to do or not do with our characters. That bit the big one pretty fast.

Remember when there was supposed to be a spokesperson for the party, who would tell the DM what everyone was doing? It’s in the DM’s Guide. Yeah. Some kind of educational-related programming on that one. My guess is that someone connected to the game’s creation considered being a teacher at some point. We totally ignored that dumbfuck rule.

Let’s see. Humans weren’t allowed to be multi-classed? Right out the window. Spell components? Oh please, how much bookkeeping do you need? It’s only there to make life miserable for spellcasters, it’s a pain in the ass and we just ignored it. Never noticed that it notably increased the power of mages in the game…but of course, if you’re one of those who can’t wait to describe, for the fifty-eighth time, the cleric pouring a circle of dust around himself…

Face it. We weren’t a bunch of dumb schmucks who had no idea what to do with a game like this. We dove in, played 24-hour sessions and every weekend, after school, in four and five campaigns a month, and we changed, modified, rewrote, redesigned, shaped, fashioned and fucked around with the rules constantly. AND we learned to adjust our play for each individual DM’s peculiarities regarding what rules would be followed and how.

Whenever I hear someone reporting on their orthodox obedience to the rules back in the day, I just have to wonder what weirdo I’ve stumbled onto.

Monday, December 29, 2008

I Am A Bastard

Thinking about one of my own comments (that I’m a referee and not a cruise director) I found a description of a cruise director: someone who’s job it is to be enthusiastic and to get passengers involved and enthusiastic about shipboard activities, as well as doing general public relations work for the cruise line.


I have some idea from reading blogs on the net and from personal experiences about how some dungeon masters go about following exactly the description above. But I need it to be understood: if you are playing in my world, I presume you’re already involved and enthusiastic. It isn’t my job to make you that. If you can’t be that on your own, you’re welcome to lift your dead ass carcass up and haul it the fuck out of my world. I have no time for you.

As well, in case it isn’t dead obvious, I don’t give a flying fuck about the public relations effect that my world (or my blog) has on the fortunes of those who invented, re-invented or who now presently market dungeons and dragons or any other role playing game to the world. I have about as much chance of caring about that as I would about the fortunes of the NHL during a game of scrub hockey my friends and I play at the local gym. I’m not a spokesperson, I’m not concerned with the general image of the game and I really, really don’t care that some fantasy folk feel “queer” because D&D has a poor social image. Honest. I’m just too white and nerdy, and that’s something I own, not something I’m trying to change the world’s mind about.

Believe me, my players notice. They know I won’t suck up to them, or hand out choice magic items to make them feel special, or compensate for a character they’ve lost or whatever. Oh, sometimes I feel a tug at my heart…like when I introduced tables for characters to make abilities checks on for their former lives, and the cleric wound up losing one of her hands. That was a pity. It particularly sucks since most bludgeoning weapons do, in fact, require two hands.

My world is nasty, dark, unforgiving and unpleasant. Not very different from planet Earth. If you piss off the wrong people, they will kill you. Oh, I don’t mean they’ll politely challenge you to a duel and let you pick weapons, I mean they will hire a sufficiently high level assassin who will pop out at the most inconvenient moment possible and off you…such as once when the assassin followed the party into a dungeon, watched patiently as the party massacred—at great price—a cave full of bugbears, then stepped up at the very end and easily dispatched the one character left standing. That’s how I played twenty years ago and that’s how I still play today.

Yet I have no trouble with player loyalty. Everyone shows up, every running. Partly because we’re all white and nerdy but mostly because the harder it is, the more rewarding the rewards. I may be a bastard, but as I have nothing invested in the success of the monsters or the party, I’m viewed as a fair bastard who can be relied on not to cheat the system one way or the other. Thus, I get very loyal players who get a huge kick out of besting me whenever they can. Sometimes I can be bested. Someone will think of something very clever and I will concede the point, or the treasure, or whatever. That’s what my players like—an opponent, someone to pitch their wills and their minds against. Conflict is the resolution that drives the game.

I understand that most think that the conflict is between the players and the make believe shit the DM invents (or buys from a store), but that’s nonsense. Conflict occurs between actual entities. Ogres don’t run themselves, I run them. I may run them according to set rules, but if you want to live you better try to prove yourself against what’s in my mind—what would Alexis do, that’s the question.

That is the compelling brilliance of the game…IF you have a DM who is a challenge. I’ve played against game referees who were so dull it was possible to convince them a two-handed sword could be used one-handed. Or that a Chant spell could be done silently.

So no, I’m not a cruise director. I’m not interested in showing everyone a good time. People come to play, they come to play hard and if they have a good time, its something they’ve done for themselves.

If you’re going to get involved in this racket and be a DM, you better ask yourself when was the last time you ever wanted to be around anyone who was obsequiously trying to win your favor? Any of your friends particularly worried about you having a good time when you play poker with them? And if you weren’t, would they tear up and cry for you? No. They’d throw shit and tell you to get over yourself.

Well, they would if they were friends worth having.

You will never have a world until you get this whole, “I want to make sure everyone has a good time” thing out of your head. It automatically assumes your players aren’t capable of finding a good time on their own. Which makes you a sort of condescending asshole. Which might be one of the reasons people don’t come back.

Concentrate on refereeing the game. Let the players be responsible for their own level of commitment.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Policy Solution

Given that I got some fine response to my last post, I decided to give more detail. Above is the map I referred to yesterday. You will note that the map is not actually completed (the northern heavily colored areas with blue arrows indicating river direction and coastlines that haven't been done, just blue hexes indicating where the main channel is). Therefore it is at the very "edge" of my world as it exists now...really, the very edge of the world in reality, as it is brutally far north.

Teal hexes are extensive muskeg swamps. Purple hexes are uninhabitable mountain areas, a mix of bare rock and scrub trees, with brutal normal temperatures, expecially in winter.

The large arrow on the map indicates the distance the party has been able to travel in seven sessions (they are at the point of the arrow). Their point of departure is Gora Narodnaya, highest mountain in the Urals (6,214 ft.) and one of the inevitable existing paths into the Abyss. Having survived that little adventure, the party left, staggered out of the glacial mountains, avoided a nearby resident white dragon and made it down onto the taiga flatland, where they managed to piss off some gnolls. It has only been in the last running and a half, mostly the last running, that they were pursued.

Mostly, they survive because the mage wisely took Leomund's Secure Shelter, which protects them 8 hours of every day.

Allow me to explain the map.

Bjarmaland, which they are in, extends a very great distance into the west, a good 25 to 30 hexes before they would reach Russia. Bjarmaland is divided into Gaa'Kaa (shown on the map) and Glu'Bak, which is off the map to the west. The large river flowing up the left side of the map is the Pechora, which eventually debouches into the Bering Sea, far, far to the north. It isn't navigable except by canoe. Bjarmaland, as I've said before, is occupied by Gnolls with numerous human, gnome and elven slaves--so there is the possibility, if the party is willing to get close enough to a sizable habitation (they haven't yet) that they could free a lot of slaves and do a whole Spartacus thing.

The large region to the east, Magloshkagok, is a huge, largely uninhabitable region of swamp and lowland corresponding to the West Siberian Plain. Magloshkagok is divided into three regions, Biyetia, Ostyakia and Yobatia, and is populated by about three hundred thousand goblins. It measures about 840,000 square miles in area, making it about one fourth the total land area of the United States. The large river flowing in from the east and up to the north of the map is the Ob River. The large one from the south which meets it is the Irtysh. Both are huge, 4-8 miles across and thoroughly navigable.

Most of the population dwell so far from any other race that they live very peaceably--except along the region called "The Marsh Borderlands," where the goblinish region of Mendostigarkland sparks against the Kingdom of Hoth (Eykhoth County is shown), occupied by Dwarves. The dwarvish population is higher towards the Ural Mountains and scattered in the lands known as Night Fields and the Planted Fall. The Planted Fall in particular has historically been the site of many interracial battles.

Lastly, the bottom southwest corner is Bulgrastan, comprising of the Akmanates of Zyria and Bolgar. This land is ruled by 2-3 thousand ogre overlords (magi included, of course), an orc/haruchai population and many dwarven, human and orcish slaves.

The party is utterly unaware of Bulgrastan, its location or what it would mean to find it. They might as characters have heard of the land, but they're certainly unaware that they're within 180 miles of it.

I hadn't exactly considered it, but if they're willing to reclimb the Urals (about 4,000 feet at this point) they could work their way through the Valley of the Broken Axe and into northern Eykhoth, and thus back to a friendly land. the time they reached the mountains, it would be mid-November and likely they would be unable to climb through the deep snow. But...if they could, they might find a dwarven hamlet within 200 miles. Where they could then wait out the winter.

Sadly, they have no more idea about Hoth than they have about Bulgrastan. Think I should tell them?

Of course...they find a small gnoll settlement of two or three houses, with one gnome and one human slave--both of whom know that somewhere, just over the mountains, is the dwarven land of Hoth. The party bickers, eventually picks a valley and tries to climb the mountains. A couple lose toes and a point of dexterity and finally, before December 1st, they're near a warm fire.

A solution at last.


I've gone and dug some pics up of the Pechora Valley, where the party is at. I could find no winter shots, which isn't surprising, since in deep winter the Pechora experiences almost no day, so you'll have to imagine these covered in four feet of snow.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Policy Decisions

I am conflicted.

Here is the situation (I'll try to keep it brief). The party, without going into reasons, has itself stuck in northern Russia, on the banks of the Pechora river, during the last week of October. They are about thirty hexes, 20 miles per hex, from what you could call "friendly" civilization. With the heavy snow, the taiga, the tens of thousands of gnolls, ogres and orcs blocking their way, they move at about two hexes a running. The adventure has been interesting, what with their being pursued (last Saturday it was gnolls on mastodon-back), but it has been about seven runnings since this hell started and I'm thinking I need to do some kind of deux-ex-machina to get them the fuck out of their circumstance.


The region they're in basically comprises of a large map, 30x35 hexes, representing what is today the Komi District of Russia, centered on the Timan and Ural Mountains, with parts of the Perm Oblast, the Archangel Oblast and lands east of the Urals. It was interesting to map...but it is hideously empty. In the middle ages, about the 11th century, the Novgorod traders called it "Bjarmaland," which of course is what I call it. It's importance is the furs it exports.

Now, why bother going to all the trouble of making a map, accurate in detail to real Earth, if I'm just going to boost the party out of it because it's too BIG? It's not like the party is ever going to come back here. It's pretty much the one time and that's it.

The purist in me says, make the poor bastards drag their miserable asses across the snow and muskeg and through the brutal weather conditions until they finally reach civilization. It will make them appreciate, for once, being in a town. Maybe they might settle down and let the game circulate a bit more around politics, if they get tired of hacking and slashing and cutting their way free from the endless hordes of bloodthirsty half-neanderthal races that dwell there. Why feel sorry?

On the other hand, it's supposed to be fun.

Oh well. I don't think the party will quit playing. I have plenty of ideas up my sleeve to keep it from just being about combat and occasionally stripping them of supplies (everything is running low). And if they get bored and uncomfortable, perhaps then I'll think about having them encounter some friendly mage or someone who can jump them home. We'll just have to see.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Rut

Thinking on something that Uncle Bear wrote some days ago, yes, D&D is in a rut. He makes the point about fantasy authors, referring to a few from the early-to-mid Twentieth Century—Howard, Moorcock, Vance—as influences on the game. I understand why Vance is included, because its lately come to light that he had something to do with the method for discharging magic, but really, he’s a pretty piss poor author, and no one but no one would have included him on any list twenty years ago. But that to one side.

If there was an author whose name would have come up, at lot, it would have been Tolkein. Of course Tolkein, for without him there would be no races in the game, or at least the races would not be so well defined. Not that I like Tolkein as an author. I was conscious during the whole “Frodo Lives” excitement during the mid 1970s, but the books were horridly dull, full of prepositions (…they headed down the path through the woods to where they could cross over the bridge and past the glade to the inn beside the gate to the back rooms above the main floor…) Two pages and I’m fast asleep (even on the bus to work).

Bear’s argument is that fantasy has fed the game that has now defined the fantasy and both are in a rut. Well, something close to that, anyway. Go read his argument. I’m only here to say that yes, I think that D&D is in an awful rut, but that it doesn’t begin with fiction written in the last fifty years.

If you want to define the culprit for the story trap that grips D&D, you might as well start with Gilgamesh, the oldest extant text in existence. It is the earliest evidence of anyone putting told tales to print, and it is an awful, meandering story about superpowers, destroying monsters, completing a quest and becoming, ultimately, a god. I’m well aware that there are many scholars who love it (I took courses from them in university), but in terms of emotional, on-the-edge of your seat action, it would be like having only one movie being found by a culture five thousand years from now and that movie being Dragonslayer.

Nevertheless, for most of human culture, right up until around 1600 or so, virtually every depicted story about human beings—which are not technically religious— fundamentally circulated around those basic themes. Hero destroys monster, wins princess, gets dead and then deified. Sometimes the dead part is skipped. A lot of the religious stories too, notably the various Hindu texts and parts of the Bible. It is only that the non-religious stories tend to be less preachy and guilt-ridden.

My argument for the very height of this story-telling process would be Spenser’s the Fairy Queen, which is pure D&D and from which a direct line can be drawn to all modern fantasy. Both C.S. Lewis and Tolkein were, as Oxford professors, deeply steeped in the English educational tradition of having read at least the first canto of the very long, long poem in their early schooling, and if you’ve read Spenser you can’t miss the relationship. But if you think the language and internal references of Shakespeare are hopelessly obscure, you’re not quite ready for Spenser…and most aren’t. Which is a shame, because it’s pure D&D.

Others would argue that Cervantes Don Quixote would be the more profound work, and I would agree, but not as a fantasy story. Published in 1605, it is the satire of the fantasy story, in which the attempts by a deluded, ordinary man attempting to live up to the story proves both funny and enlightening.

It is generally considered the earliest modern “novel”—of quality, at least—defined partly by it being in prose but also because it attempts to approach higher subjects than fairy tales. Fairy tales are, in essence, morality tales intended to encourage listeners to dislike cruelty and cling to hope. What is Cinderella, after all, but a story that tens of thousands of abused, poverty-living girls could hear and dream about, thus keeping them passive and accepting because eventually they would be rescued?

But I am swinging a bit off topic.

I’ve said before that D&D ought not to be a game about morality…and that is what the hero image is: it is a moral position, where good triumphs over evil. We all know that vast numbers of DMs insist on paying lip service to this, intervening when players are “too evil” or self-serving, intentionally or unintentionally punishing the more grasping members of a given party while rewarding virtuous, easy-to-DM would-be knights of the round table, who eschew prostitutes and would never, ever act gluttonously. I say easy because for the ordinary DM trapped in the ancient fantasy framework, all that’s wanted are players who will scoop up their predesigned quests and storylines without question. You don’t want these guys to say, “Who the fuck cares? I let the dragon eat the princess…does he give me any treasure for my not doing anything?”

The modern novel is an intellectual development over ancient storytelling, still present in pulp fiction, because it does contemplate higher, more humanly relevant issues…issues which don’t translate well to the fantasy framework of a Saturday evening playing D&D. Mostly because it gets a little creepy before getting awfully uncomfortable. I had a party debating last weekend over the necessary torture of a gnoll cleric…at least half the party (split evenly down the sexual divide) was uncomfortable with the scene, although all it involved were descriptions of slicing off skin and beating the gnoll’s legs with a chain. They would much rather have been turning living things into corpses by the far less intrusive system of ordinary combat.

Every DM has tried this and the results are pretty standard. Have an NPC fall in love with a character. Speak the necessary role-playing lines. Have them get, well, x-rated. Watch everyone get uncomfortable, and jokes get made, and the scene completely fails.

Putting everything like that into old style chivalric statements makes the scene more comfortable. Being the DM and saying, “Please Orric, touch me, touch me everywhere…fuck me hard…I’m so hot for you,” will never play as well around a gaming table as, “Sir Orric, would that I could speak my heart.” It’s corny and it’s where the game is. Players are still generally the same children who used to cry out and throw themselves face down into pillows when the “mushy stuff” came on the movie.

Often DMs will appeal to ideals like honor, duty and loyalty…all concepts taught chapter and verse to the military in order to obtain blind obedience. Which, I suppose, is all most DMs want from their players. Raising the game out of its fairy tale roots involves playing up mental states like guilt, regret, cowardice, impetuousness and hatred. When, in your world, has not HATE been a wonderful motivator in a campaign? When have you attempted to make a player regret his hatred, resisting the urge to make all your villains stock characters without a shred of decency? You want a memorable campaign - then make a player doubt whether or not a villain, once in the hand, should actually be killed? Make it so that thousands of innocents depend on the villain’s survival, even though the villain is as loathsome as they come. What, can’t think of how to do it? You need to read better literature.

Well, I’ll stop there, though I could probably go on. If you want out of the rut, throw out the playbook. Go find yourself another, preferably outside of fantasy fiction. Publishers pick that stuff based on its appeal to narrow-thinking, lowbrow groundlings, knowing they read for simple pleasure, not to expand their horizons. The horizon in a rut is a pretty near one. About four inches in front of one’s face.

Friday, December 12, 2008

How To Play A Joke

Well, it’s been fun thus far. Let’s do another. This one isn’t terribly clever, but it will have long lasting effects that will run perpetually through your campaign. The sort of thing that helps create continuity…the binding effect of an inside joke.

Have the party contacted by an assayer’s office, and feed them this story: while examining the collapsed remnants of a mine near town, a few of the company’s prospectors stumbled into a party of thieves hiding in the caves, in the middle of dividing up treasure. They recognized the thieves as local wanted toughs and took the law into their hands, apprehending them. But before they could successfully grab both the criminals and the loot, one thief threw the most valued treasure of the trove (the Idol of Gazoomba or some other fool name) into the mine’s central chasm, which is reported to be three or four hundred feet deep. The prospectors paled at the thought of going in themselves, so now the company is hiring the work out to freelancers. They company has bought the rights to sell the item if it can be recovered, and if recovered the party need not be worried about fencing the item. The item is not magical, but is made of a rare green stone. It would be nice if the party had a locate object spell, but if they don’t give them the needed scroll.

Great. Have the party practically kill themselves trying to get this object back. Once they’ve found it, point out that while the stone is green, it doesn’t seem that valuable. If detect magic or similar spell is cast, indicate that yes, the object does emanate with magic…but don’t tell them what the magic is. Let them find the secret catch that makes the idol vibrate, however.

On the way home, have the party stumble across a caravan or a roadside inn being attacked by bandits. During the combat, have a twelve-year-old boy (one of the defenders) flee from the battle with his arms wrapped around a blanket. At the end of the battle, have the party find the boy, who is holding the blanket for dear might, and make it clear that there seems to be something wrapped inside the blanket. Investigation will show a duplicate Idol of Gazoomba inside the blanket. Have the boy beg to have it returned. “I always wanted one,” the boy says. “Pleeeeeeeese!”

Upon examination, the party should discover that the two idols are virtually similar in every regard. The carving might differentiate a little, but in no way that seems to matter. Both objects emit the same magic and both objects have the secret vibrate-causing catch.

Let the party puzzle this out as they head back to town. Upon entering, point out that they must walk through the bazaar. They hear a voice, “Toys! Get ya toys here!” As they look at the table showing off the seller’s wares, they should see about 20 duplicate Gazoomba Idols, all for sale, cheap.

(This works also if they’ve chosen to keep the idol and go to another town)

If they return to find the assayer’s office, have it completely cleaned out. At that point, it’s up to you. You can either leave it a mystery forever, or let the party know somehow that it was all an elaborate ruse by old enemies to get them killed by the gelatinous cube colony that infested the bottom of the chasm. Whatever you like.

One way or the other, Gazoomba Idols can then be found occasionally throughout the rest of your campaign, whenever you want to make the party feel stupid. Fun fun fun.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

How To Enjoy An Evening

Okay, another running idea, before I get to work on my other crap. This works best in a coastal, fair sized city, which is surrounded by a few marshes. It will probably require a fair bit of pre-work on your part.

Benign entry point: As the party is on their way to buy or sell stuff, or perhaps to the tavern, or to their inn of choice, describe a moderate hubbub going on in front of a large, four story town hall sort of building. There are four lines of rather poor people being interviewed by what are clearly four mages and about twenty private guards. Have the lines extend out into the street so that they block the way of the party, and try to build up the party’s curiosity in what is going on. When they ask, tell them that the “Mage’s Guild” is looking for test subjects.

Point two: Have the bell chime on the impressive 80 foot bell tower which is across the wide avenue from the Mage’s Guild and in front of the party. Have a nearby NPC remark, “Sure is a shame they’re tearin’ that building down. It’s a landmark, it is.” If the party doesn’t ask, have someone else say within earshot, “Why are they tearin’ it down?” -“Well, it’s a danger, ain’t it? They been sayin’ for months the ground’s been seepin’…ain’t stable, and that’s the truth.”

At that point, as if the Gods themselves were listening, have a deep sucking sound occur behind the party. As they turn, describe a part of the street falling into a sinkhole. Have the sinkhole widen rapidly, then describe a sewer-like rush as water down a pipe: the sinkhole heading at the party. The street people will scatter. Give the party a few doorways to leap into, and have the sinkhole pass right up the street and by them, and stop at the bell tower.

Describe some awful, disturbing plopping sounds, as though a titan was disgorging his dinner into the basement of the tower. Show the tower visibly quivering. Make it clear to the party that it looks as if it will fall. If the party say’s they’ll run, point out the sink hole is about thirty feet deep and appears soft at the bottom, and emphasize the question, “Which way do you intend to run?”

Now, while they are making up their mind, describe a booming belch emerging from deep, deep beneath the city. Describe a large bubble of air rising out of the muck at the base of the sinkhole under the tower, which then POPS!, splattering mud everywhere. And then have the tower fall over. Into the mage’s guild.

Begin the fun: Imagine, if you will, every conceivable potion, from the combined inventories of thirty or forty laboratories, suddenly being released into the atmosphere. You would do well to emphasize early on that the “test subjects” would indicate a great deal of research going on in this particular mage’s guild. What you want is to create a table which will ascribe the effects or reverse effects of the various potions you can contrive to add to that table, along with side-effects like insanity, gigantism, undeadism, etherealness, berserking, genetic modifications, mutations and so on.

Have everyone in the party affected, randomly. Have everyone on the street (and adjoining street, and additional quarter of the city, in the direction the wind is blowing) affected. Have the various animals, from large mammals down to minute insects, affected. Roll randomly for persons immediately adjacent to members of the party, including their reactions (which might be interesting if they turn paranoid or megalomaniac).

Sit back and watch fur fly.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How To Kill Your Party

I’ve been thinking of what imaginative adventure I could outline for the benefit of the gentle reader; something not usually done, something different. And which could say something about the way the game is played.

Allow your party to reach a fairly large settlement, a few thousand people…but not too many. After their first or second night, have a disturbance wake them at four or five in the morning. They look out their window to see the street is full of people, loading up wagons and horses, mules and each other. Have soldiers rushing here and there, shouting for everyone to stay calm, to take only their necessities. Have town criers moving through shouting that the local nobility has instructed everyone to flee, that the time is four bells, that ten bells remain. Describe people tossing goods out of windows into the street, people tussling over the use of some animal, swords being drawn, soldiers rushing in to stop a fight from occurring.

Now that you have their attention. They will rush about demanding to know what is happening. Have people say, with a great deal of fear, that the “Junipers” are coming. (Pick any completely non-threatening term you like). Encourage the party to “flee for their lives” and say that they must flee to “Graven.” Have people be too busy to talk. Do not explain the meaning of anything—they are much too busy, frantic, freaked and terrified to explain what is going on to noobs. Have the party’s horses stolen, or about to be stolen, so that the party must fight for their horses. Have the innkeeper leave, without locking the door, while the party reclaims their horses. Unless the party says, “WE RUN” right away, indicate that the town is emptying out pretty fast, that there are many doors hanging wide open to jeweler’s shops, smithies, craft guilds and the like. Have at least a dozen obvious other people looting all around—as suddenly the soldiers have all disappeared.

Chances are the party will note the time (9 bells or 8 bells left) and that it can’t be that bad if there are other locals who are looting. Let the party loot. Let them find amazing stuff, enough to let them go up one, maybe two levels. Let them find some truly magnificent treasure, something unbelievable, like a crystal statue weighing a ton, suggesting that it alone could allow every person in the party to go up a level—if they can get it out. Give them a broken-down cart and a frightened donkey in order to drag this thing. Watch the party calm the donkey, fix the cart, debate with each other about taking the item and so on…wasting time, of course.

You should be able to figure out the rest of this adventure yourself. Obviously, the party will refuse to abandon the statue. But once they have wasted even one hour, you must play it out this way, once they discover that the “Juniper” is an advancing horde of ten billion insects, an enormous creeping doom which will grind down four hit points per round while being, effectively, impossible to kill (even with another creeping doom or a plethora of cloud kills): carrying anything, anything at all, will slow them down to the point where they will not reach safety (Graven is a holy place of some kind, which holds the town). They must abandon everything to survive. Do not make this clear at any point. Have them work it out on their own: “Hm…I run faster without the sword…I run faster when I’m not manipulating the Tenser’s Floating Disc,” etc. Before the party can reach Graven, give them twenty four or forty-eight hours of the creatures nipping at their heels the whole way, one damage every eight minutes if they’re in clothes (which have grown ragged and are now constantly grabbing at branches or tripping them up), one damage every nine minutes if they’re naked and still carrying a weapon, and so on.

I’m guessing that you will kill the whole party before they willingly dump the statue, then their loot, then their armor, their goods and equipment, finally their weapons and their clothes. Given the choice between materials and life, players always hesitate. Make them pay for their hesitation.

Oops. Forgot to include a princess. Oh well, they rescue a princess somehow.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Evil, Insane Killer Distance Table

What have I been doing lately? I had my doubts about going into this, as it definitely defines one of my crazier views on what comprises D&D, but what the hell. If you're going to read this blog, you might as well have the whole picture.

Here is the whole picture:

The purpose for this flow chart, which vaguely resembles central Eurasia, is forthcoming. First, I recognize that it is none-too-clear. It has been processed twice, once from Publisher to JPeg, then onto the Blogspot it is naturally a mess. A slightly clearer version can be downloaded here, where at least you can read the names.

If you know nothing about my trade tables, and you care to know, I suggest you search "trade" on this blog and go through some of my earlier posts. In the meantime, I'll give a quick description:

Individual regions produce a given amount of product; this product is collected in "trade cities," which are represented on this chart. The distribution of the products once they are produced and gathered together at their export points (trade cities) is dependent on the distance these cities are from each other. What I have been working on, painfully slowly, these last two weeks is a complete distance table which would identify the distance of every city from every other city. Fun, eh? I'm not close to finished, and I won't be for far longer than I like to think about.

Two immediate problems. First, I have not made any specifications for production trade cities for Western Europe, most of Africa, India, East Asia or the New World. This would seem like a problem. However, since I can't wait until that stage of the process is completed (it has taken me five years to get to where I am now, which isn't bad, considering), I am forced to estimate the distances to those areas and basically ignore any portions I have not done. For example, while I don't know the trade cities for India, China, Indochina or Western Europe, I do know how much product those regions produce. Whereas for most of Africa, the East Indies and the New World, I have nothing. Haven't even started working on those. C'est la vie.

You will note that there are only a few sea distances noted on the chart. Sorry. These just don't work out on the table. I use the maps that I've made (you've seen some of those maps, hopefully) to establish the number of hexes between ports. Since ships can virtually travel in any direction, it isn't worth it to note all the possible existing relationships. Those which are noted are those which are important to Central Europe, where my party is and where I am concentrating on for the distance table.

You may also note there are rivers, which have two numbers associated with them. The first, lower number is the distance downriver, with the current; the second, is the distance upriver. This makes the table more interesting, as the difference can decide which path a particular trade route takes. It also means that I can't simply assume the distance between A and B is the same as between B and A. I have considered simplifying this and averaging the two distances, but...well, I'm nuts. I like the irregularity.

All told there are more than 400 cities indicated on the chart. I have no program or programming ability to enter the individual distances and have a computer find the shortest distance, although I know this is possible. Sadly, I'm deficient in this regard. So if any nerd has an idea how to make this process shorter, so that I don't have to calculate each and every distance by fucking hand...grumble, grumble...I would like it.

Oh, there are some interesting points on the table, for anyone nerdy enough to really have a close look. For example, they might see that the river which flows through Kiyev--the Dneiper River--inexplicably becomes a road between Kremenchuk and Khortytsia. This is because, up until the 20th century, this part of the Dneiper was not navigable, which served to make the Ukraine somewhat backward, and helps explain why historically there was little foreign control over the various hetman tribes which dwelt in the lower Dneiper Valley; also, why the Tatars consistently controlled the Crimea and the Sea of Azov so long. Goods shipped to Kiev tended to go westward, up the Pripet River to where they could be moved to the Bug and the Vistula, and floated down to the Baltic, rather than south to the Black Sea. The main passage between the middle east and central Russia was through the Caspian, to Astrakhan and up the Volga. I should also point out that Smolensk, the point of highest navigation for the Dneiper, was more often in Polish hands than in was less practical for Russia to trade from the Dneiper than it was for the Poles.