Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Description and the World (or, 'how big is a Snattacat?')

Should a dragon be 'as big as a double decker bus'? Should a description of the Temple of Slangg draw directly on the players' and referee's knowledge of what the real Catal Huyuk or the Parthenon? Or even on shared knowledge of other fictional worlds? Does rely on these descriptive shorthands break immersion (well, yes, they probably do), or does describing the world is such terms aid agency by giving players the solid foundations upon which to base decisions? 

Referees: How much of the real world intrudes on the descriptions of the world that you provide to the players?

Players: How much of the real world should be present in the descriptions provided by the referee?

 "You're waiting in the rain for ages, and then four dragons appear at once. Unfortunately, you don't have the correct change... Your adventure ends here."

Monday, 14 October 2013

"An adventure area should provide....

...the player [character] with the following opportunities:

- experience in the use of his skills
- opportunity to obtain treasure and thereby purchase further training
- the chance to die in the pursuit of the above
- enjoyment while doing all of the above"

From RuneQuest 2 (1980)

Friday, 4 October 2013

Across the Baklands #2

The party woke in the Forest of Snatta after a, shall we say, 'disturbed' night's sleep. Though they could hack through the forest in any direction that they wished, there were two trails leading into the woods. One, heading north, was wide and well worn, very possibly something trod by human/oid feet. The other, heading east, was narrow and less well defined, possibly a path used by some large animal. Or a pack of large animals?

The party headed east, the path narrowing as they went. Ho Lee was given the chance to make a Wood Lore roll, but failed. The party had hacked and stumbled their way into a STRANGLEWEED grove. Tendrils coiled round necks and pulled at swordarms. Mopsy, thinking outside the box, dropped to the floor and played dead. If murderous plants are capable of any feeling other than hunger, the Strangleweeds would have been surprised. But they can't, so they weren't, and more tendrils snaked around Mopsy. He wasn't a knight in shining armour, just a difficult to open tin of fertilizer.

The rest of the party hacked away, easily cutting through the bushes. The plants had picked on something a bit bigger and tougher than their usual prey. Even Mopsy, lying tangled and prone, was able to fight off the Strangleweeds. With a mighty heave (rolling a double six), he was able to pull one of the Strangleweeds almost clean out of the ground. The guerrilla gardening didn't last too long. Hack. Slash. Hack. And then Mopsy (rolling another critical) thrashed the last Strangleweed into lifelessness with one of its uprooted 'bedfellows' .

If STRANGLEWEEDS had been any real danger to the party - their low numbers and SKILL scores meant that the chance of the party being defeated was vanishingly small - I would have communicated some proper forewarning. Indeed, regardless of the degree of threat, it is always preferable that players have the possibility of making meaningful decisions. A Wood Lore roll tests character abilities. A description that suggests the possibility of danger ahead - the bones of small animals littering the trail - provides the foundation upon which a player can act.

The party pressed on along the narrow trail as it wound northwards and stumbled - literally - into another encounter. The trail - I had made clear that this path was not worn by human feet - was the hunting route of a pride of SNATTACATS. Lounging invisibly in the party's path, the Snattacats pounced! Well, not until Mopsy, chivalrous pointman of the party, had tumbled over one of them.

This was a much tougher fight; not only were there more Snattacats than party members, they also were invisible except for the round after they had been wounded. In other words, if the characters landed an early hit, the Snattacats could be cut down quite easily. But if not, that -2 to the characters' Attack Strength could prove incapacitating...

While Cramer and Mopsy drew blood early, rendering the Snattacats visible, Ho Lee was pushed back, fighting desperately for his life. The Snattacat mauling him terribly, Ho Lee needed the aid of his comrades, and a POTION OF STAMINA (along with a good sit down).   

This would be the toughest fight remaining before the party reached the foothills of Zanzunu, largely because it victory rested on character skill and dice rolling, rather than resulting from player choice. As a result, with the benefit of the necessary information, the encounters with the remaining SEVEN SERPENTS might have felt a bit anti-climactic, requiring a simple routine of 'exploit weakness and defeat serpent'. Luckily, the relatively minor dice rolls left in play didn't allow everything to go their own way...

The party arrived at a well worn path that ran east-west. To the west, the path climbed uphill, and they could see that there was an earthen mound in a clearing at the top of the hill. Presuming it to be a barrow, the party decided to investigate.

The mound had a low door set in it, and appeared to be inhabited. Ho Lee was able to sense that the mound was protected with magical wards. With their previous encounters with the kind of eccentric magical NPCs that litter Titan in mind, the party very consciously decided to adopt a friendly, diplomatic tone; they knocked, waited, and were polite. And, as if by magic, the party were able to acquire nearly all the information required to defeat three of the remaining Serpents.

The mound was the home of Fenestra, an Elven Sorceress who had devoted her life to protecting the Forest of Snatta from the corruption that flowed from Mampang. The Water Serpent had killed her father, so she was only too keen to help them defeat the remaining Serpents. Indeed, she had the Sun Serpent trapped in a Crystal Ball. She told them that the Fire Serpent, which the birds had told her was somewhere to the south of her home, was vulnerable to sand, and that the Water Serpent, which haunted Lake Ilkala, could be stilled by oil. The Time Serpent was terrorizing the goblins of the Vischlami Swamp, and she had given them magic to help them defeat it. She gave them two flasks of oil, a whistle with which to call for the ferryman on Lake Ilkala, and then offered to sell them - sell them! - other supplies. I know Ayn Rand was a big influence on Steve Jackson, but this entrepreneurial spirit goes too far. Is there not room on Titan for a little generosity? Must selfishness be a virtue across all the Old World?       

The FIRE SERPENT was dispatched with ease; the party kept their distance, avoiding the explosion as the small red snake with intelligent eyes transformed into a terrifying Serpent, fire coiling around its body. Terrifying, that is, if you don't have a few pouches full of sand. Sand cast, flames extinguished - you could almost feel sorry for the little, powerless snake as its head was crushed by Ho Lee. Three Serpents down (and one trapped by Fenestra).

The party made their way to Lake Ilkala and, using the whistle given to them by Fenestra, summoned the ferryman. Summoned is the right word - though he must be one of the least otherworldly denizens of the Faerie Kingdom - as he appeared to pop into existence just outside the field of anyone's vision. In this world, nothing is free and even heroes on a quest must pay the fare; more gold drained from the party's purses. Muttering and cursing under his breath, the old boatman paddled the party across the lake, where they were ambushed by the WATER SERPENT.

The lake began to boil, and out... flowed a shimmering blue Serpent. The party had to Test their Luck to remain in the boat, luckily they held on - just. Ho Lee barely kept his balance, but managed to pass the flasks of oil given to him by Fenestra to the others. The Water Serpent rose up like a wave, ready to crash down on the boat. Time for Tests of Skill... Cramer threw the unstoppered flask, but it flew off to one side, splashing ineffectively into the water. Mopsy held the party's only other flask of oil. Mopsy has a SKILL of 8. He rolled a... five and a... three. Phew, we're into Irkutsk! The oil splashes over the Water Serpent, which spreads across its roiling surface. The disturbance in reality that is the Serpent's physical form settles and calms until the surface of reality has been smoothed over. No more disturbance, no more Serpent. That's Five Serpents who won't be winging their way to Mampang.

The party pushed their way through the tall black reeds of the Vischlami Swamp, heading in the general direction of the foothills of Zanzunu. Soon they were trudging through knee deep mud - Ho Lee finally found a use for the vermin repelling spell given to him by Ghaza Moon, keeping the GIANT LEECHES from their warm, blood-filled flesh. In this foul smelling 'forest' the party came across a small group of GOBLINS. The party adopted a friendly demeanor, and a pantomime ensued. 

The Goblins could barely speak the Common Tongue, and none of the party could speak Goblin, much less the particular dialect spoken in Vischlami. The party made it clear that they were there to kill giant snake things, but the Goblins wanted to know something. 

"You speak words without saying? You speak words not in mouth?"

They wanted to know if anyone in the party could read. Specifically, could anyone in the party read the magic scroll given to the Goblins by Fenestra to help them defeat the TIME SERPENT. After much back and forth, it was made clear to the Goblins that, yes, Ho Lee could read, and he would use the scroll to defeat the giant snake thing that was terrorising their tribe. 

Scroll in hand, the party were, with little ceremony, ushered towards the feeding grounds of the Time Serpent. It was waiting for them; existing outside of time it was probably there yesterday and tomorrow. Is this an acceptable 'Quantum Ogre'? Ho Lee frantically began chanting the words written by Fenestra, which involved lines such as 'time's arrow striking the heart of evil'. Unfortunately, he needed to succeed at a Magic Lore test for the spell to work... The Serpent appeared to move jerkily, as if it were time itself was skipping, but the chant could not bind it. Mopsy suffered a wound, and then the Serpent struck at him. The monster was not bound by the laws of causality. Ho Lee continued to stumble over the words, unable to find the rhythm of the chant. Incredibly, by luck, skill, or divine favour, Mopsy managed to block one of the Time Serpent's attacks, but Cramer and Mopsy were both being rapidly worn down by the Serpent's strikes out of time.

Ho Lee found the archaic rhythmic structure of the chant and the Serpent suddenly found itself constrained by causality and unidirectional time. Easy meat for Mopsy and Cramer, but before they could finish the monster it did for itself. Rolling a double one, the Time Serpent... The Time Serpent reared up for one final strike at Mopsy. Clumsy, bound by the laws of reality that had never applied to it, it bit its own tail. Maddened by the order of the universe, it swallowed more and more until it disappeared from existence.

Six Serpents down, but the Moon Serpent unaccounted for. Let's see what story it had to tell the Archmage. On to Mampang!   

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Across the Baklands #1

Heading north – perhaps to avoid the area plagued by BADDU-BAK BEETLES – the party were approached by a small ‘posse’ of CENTAURS. Baklands Centaurs are not graceful faerie creatures, but a crude, dim-witted, and proud people with a character that is as much wild horse as it is humanoid. The party watched the Centaurs circle the party, kicking up clouds of dust and rearing up theatrically. The show concluded, the Centaur leader began to parlay with the party, demanding tribute to cross their plains. Having been told by Shadrack that the Centaurs had no real concept of money and that it was the gift itself that was important, Mopsy gave the leader a feather from the Goldcrest Eagle, while Ho Lee offered one of his silver arrows. The Centaur placed both objects in his mane-cum-hair which, using rancid grease, had been sculpted into a pair of large horns.     

Gifts given, the Centaurs relaxed and grew friendly, answering the party’s questions as best they could. They told the party about the ‘Dead Man Walking’ to the south, the BLACK ELVES who crossed the Baklands in petty trading caravans, and the fact that the eastern parts of the Baddu-Bak plains were the territory of the KLATTAMEN. When the party raised the subject of the Seven Serpents, the Centaurs grew agitated. One caught the barest glimpse of stick on the ground in the corner of its eye, reared, whinnied, and frantically trotted about as if the ground was crawling with snakes. Once order had been restored, the party were told that a ‘Snake Man’ lived in a hole in the ground to the north.

The party decided to push on east, across the plains, searching for the AIR SERPENT, the only one of the seven about which they had any information. Shadrack had told them its weakness, and that he had heard stories of an unnatural whirlwind to the north east of his cave.

In the book, this whirlwind is *just* an unnatural whirlwind, but I decided to bring another of the Serpents into the Baddu-Bak plains, avoiding the series of three Serpents in quick succession that, as written, ends the journey across the Baklands. By placing one of the Serpents earlier in the adventure, it allows the party to make use of the information that they have been given, and establishes a precedent as to the importance of information – rather than character abilities – in defeating these immensely powerful supernatural thingamajigs.

The party skirted around the Black Elf caravan and continued east, until they came across a small, ugly, gnome like creature. The creature demanded that the party either give him a gift, or step off the path and allow him to proceed. The path was just a lightly worn strip across the Baddu-Bak plains; the creature could easily walk around the party. The party offered the creature a gold piece, which he rejected, asking for something more… interesting. The party grew suspicious, even hostile, and refused to move out of the creature’s way. The gnome-thing cursed Ho Lee, who tried to retaliate by casting a spell but found that he could barely speak for a stutter. Having a history of tangling with mysterious magic users for no real reason – and coming off the worst – the party stepped aside and allowed the creature to pass.

It was events such as this, in which opportunities to gather information were passed up, with severe consequences, that prompted a change in the party’s ‘standard operating procedure’ vis-à-vis encounters with intelligent beings.

The party were still in pursuit of the Air Serpent, and took the opportunity to turn north a maze of rocky hills. The sound of someone playing a flute caught their ears, and the party turned a corner to find that the music was being played by an old man. The old man greeted them in a wheezing voice, drawing in deep breaths as if struggling for air. He invited the join him for a while, and asked the party what they were doing out in the Baklands. The party told him that they were hunting serpents, and the old man responded by saying, ‘That’s funny, because the serpents are hunting YOU!’, before tipping his head back allowing the AIR SERPENT boiled forth from his mouth.

Shadrack had told the party how to defeat the Air Serpent, so while Cramer and Mopsy fought defensively, aware that they would struggle to win a straight fight, Ho Lee swung his sword at the empty body of the old man. Off came his head, but the Serpents still attacked, flowing past Cramer and Mopsy's shields and pushing its way into their lungs, choking them. Ho Lee searched the body as his companions waved their swords ineffectually against the Serpent. Among the old man's clothes he found a small snake. As he killed it, so died the Air Serpent. Cramer and Mopsy were gasping for air, but the first serpent had been defeated.

Unsure where to go next, knowing little except that Mampang was to the east, the party pushed on. Soon they arrived at the KLATTAMEN village on the edge of the Forest of Snatta. Shadrack had told them that the Klattamen, a primitive tribe of nearly humans, were friendly enough but celebrated physical strength and violence. And so it proved, with the party enjoying the hospitality of the villagers, before Mopsy was challenged to a fight as the after dinner entertainment. One of the Klattamen women, who had been admiring Mopsy throughout the meal, brought him a club before retreating, giggling shyly. Mopsy and the Klattaman CHAMPION fought to a draw - Mopsy was still wearing his armour, so even though the Champion was landing the majority of the blows he was managing to do little damage. For a brief moment Mopsy had the upper hand as the Klattaman fumbled and fell, and Mopsy leapt! But he was not strong enough to pin the Champion. Eventually the Chief stepped in, calling the fight a draw. Honour on all sides had been maintained, and the village had had their entertainment.

Asked, using crude sign language and simple words, about serpents, the Klattamen made fearful face, pointed south and smashed rocks together. And the party trotted south, leading to the incident that prompted the post Consequences of Failure. Plunging headlong into an encounter with the EARTH SERPENT, with no specific knowledge of the creatures weakness, they speculated amid the sound and fury of combat. Experiments with water, MUD, and other stones produced no joy (though for a while the party mistook a the effects of rolling a double six as revealing the weakness...) etc.

I tried to provide as much information as possible. Appropriately, the Earth Serpent rolled 'snake eyes' early in the fight, which I interpreted as it losing contact with the ground (the source of its power). I had it shriek in agony as it crumbled away while airborne. I also made sure that the party saw that the Serpent absorbed stones and earth as it moved, leaving a shallow trench.  As I described in the earlier blog post, in the end I had to point out that the current strategy - fighting defensively and hoping something happened, could not end in anything other than a slow, miserable TPK. They needed to do something, and the something that they needed to do had already been suggested, and then ignored/forgotten.

Ho Lee cast YOB, and the GIANT was able to pick up the Earth Serpent. Separated from the earth, its rocky form crumbled away until the Serpent was nothing more than a small brown snake. After thinking about casting HOT on the weakened Serpent (and after clarifications about the insignificant size of the snake), Ho Lee commanded the Giant to kill the Serpent, and that was that. Two Serpents down.

The final portion of the session included a pretty typical, 'so, you're really going to do *that*?' moment.

Choosing to go forward - east - rather than double back and investigate a strange, localised thunderstorm - the party entered the Forest of Snatta just before nightfall. The forbidding, twisted Forest of Snatta, home to foul beasts and murderous vegetation. And just inside the Forest of Snatta, the party made camp.

Well, if you made camp in a dangerous forest, you must surely expect a 'wandering monster' roll, mustn't you?

One shiny wet nose! Two big furry ears! Two big googly eyes! It's a BEAR!

The party were never in danger of being defeated by a lone Bear, but it did do them some damage, and interrupt their sleep. Cramer continued the party habit of taking a grisly trophy, cutting off a paw, and the party was able to snatch a few more hours of sleep. As were we, reconvening a few days later to continue the party's exploration of the Forest of Snatta and their hunt for the Serpents of Mampang.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Look What the X-Boat Brought

Lovely stuff

Actually, because of a mix-up at Far Future Enterprises' end, I also received a copy of Traveller5 on CD-ROM, and a Travellers' Aid Society membership card. The TAS card makes a lovely bookmark - it is currently keeping my place in Larry Niven's Ringworld, appropriately enough.

The FFE CD-ROMs are really good value. I can't see how anyone could quibble at $35 (less than £22) for EVERYTHING GDW produced for 'Classic' Traveller. I will be ordering some of the other FFE CD-ROMs in their '4 for the price of 3' deal. Will be? I just have.

Classic Traveller (and other editions) on a TL9 Hand Computer