Friday, 24 April 2015

The Epic of the Ur-Men (Awkward Treasure #3)

My PCs are always coming across hieroglyphs, runes or frescos when they explore ruins. As a GM, I use these to reveal a bit of that epic backstory that I have written (or am making up on the spot), to help the Players (and PCs) to make sense of the ruins and its place in the game world, and to foreshadow the dangers (and rewards) that might be found.

But these are also ancient (and valuable) works of art. When real-life looters stripped ancient sites (and, later, museums) of their treasures, it wasn’t just the gold they plundered. On occasion, it was aspects of the very structures that were taken as loot; statues, columns, masonry of artistry and significance. There is no reason why the PCs in a fantasy RPG should not take the same approach.

These marbles are powerful and valuable objects, even though Hermes and Dionysos (the seated figures with their backs to each other) are not real. In a fantasy RPG these depictions of Gods, myth and legend can not only be true, they can be imbued with the magic of these Gods, myths and legends. 

Carved into a wall, the PCs come across the Epic of the Ur-Men, a history of the First Age of Man ‘written’ in a confusing mix of carven images, metaphorical pictographs, and letter-like runes. It is stunningly beautiful – its aesthetic value alone would bring an expedition profit – and scholars would sell their souls for the opportunity to study and interpret the images, but it is also of great political significance. The lord or city who possess this artefact can assert a link back to the dawn of human existence, to the mythical heroes who challenged and threw down the very Gods.

The only problem is getting the Epic back to civilization. Intact. Removing the required section of the wall will require the skill of at least 2 master masons and a 3d4 journeymen. Loading and transporting the wall will require 4d4 labourers and teamsters and 4 carts. Removing the Epic at the site will take 4d6 hours of labour, with 8 hours work per day being the most that can be relied upon without there being consequences. The GM should allow a good plan, or a larger workforce, to modify this roll, but simply driving the men harder will come at a cost of loyalty and fatigue, both of which may prove costly on the return journey.

This is an expedition, and an expedition is visible. The PCs will need to operate in secret, to draw on trusted contacts, or to mislead (or outright press-gang) their workmen, or else they will find themselves in a race against time. The Epic is worth killing for, and rivals will mount their own expeditions once word of the PCs plans reaches their ears. The PCs will have a head start, but can they keep this as they journey into the wilderness, and can they remove the Epic before any rivals arrive at the site? Regardless of the PCs discretion and speed, the work camp will need to be defended from wandering monsters – if a marauding Owlbear eats their master masons, the PCs might end up bringing only ancient rubble back to civilisation.   

This ‘treasure’ could be used at a range of levels of play – it could found at a bona fide ‘adventure site’ such as deep within a dungeon (which presents additional problems) or a ruined city, but it could be a lucky find in the wilderness, a mere remnant of some long forgotten structure, with distance from civilisation the main obstacle. Low-level PCs could be recruited to join such an expedition, leading scouting parties, patrols and so on. The PCs might have discovered the Epic in a previous adventure, its location might have been provided to them in the form of rumours, advice from a sage, etc., or it might be presented to them as a straightforward ‘mission’. Or low-level PCs might lead such an expedition, though they would probably need to win the backing of an ‘investor’. Mid-level PCs might seek out the Epic in order to cement the allegiance of a Lordly patron, while high-level PCs might keep the Epic for themselves, to adorn their stronghold and legitimate their own political ambitions. Of course, the content of the Epic could also be useful in other ways. For example, it would make sense if possession of the Epic counted as a contribution to a magical library or laboratory, and it stands to reason that careful study of its narrative might reveal the locations of potential further adventures – perhaps even the last refuge of the Gods! 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Inhumanity of Law (Awkward Treasure #2)

The PCs come into possession of a fantastic painting, titled the Inhumanity of Law. 5ft tall and 9ft wide, the painting depicts three scenes from the rise of Laziano as the capital of the Second Empire of Man. The first scene depicts the assassination of Julen, a successful general who named himself Tyrant. Julen drew on popular support from ordinary soldiers and other commoners, but his reforms alienated the oligarchs and denied them their legal rights. The oligarchy included his own family, and he was stabbed to death in public by his mother, his brother, and his sister. The second scene is depicts the increasingly gruesome and imaginative ways in which the oligarchy attempted to eliminate the Julenian factions and cow the people of Laziano. The final scene is truly nightmarish, with the dead walking the streets of Laziano as servants of the oligarchs. From this ordered necropolis the Second Empire of Man expanded across the known world.

The painting is worth a fortune, painted by Hybok the Cynic over two hundred years after the barbarians sacked Laziono and killed the Octatus Octatus, the Demon of Law who had assumed the role of Emperor. It is such an evocative painting that is exerts a malign influence on all those within 30ft of the painting. Even if it cannot be seen, its message can be felt. And its message is: Law is inhuman. Rules, explicit or tacit, cannot be trusted. Even the social contract between you and your neighbour is to be doubted. The PCs will feel this message, and their assessment of NPCs will be coloured by the presence of the painting.

In game terms, the presence of the painting triggers a Loyalty or Reaction Roll in all NPCs, and modifies all 2d6 Reaction Rolls be -2. The (2-12) range of possible NPC reactions will not get worse in the presence of the painting – i.e., if the Referee has determined that a Reaction Roll of a 2 would ordinarily result in a particular merchant attempting to cheat the PCs, when in the presence of the painting he won’t do anything more hostile than that on a roll of 2-4. Of course, as the merchant is more likely to cheat the PCs, the Players are more likely to react, and so begins a downward spiral.

And, of course, low Reaction Rolls will often prompt more hostile action than a bit of harmless swindling, and the players will have to negotiate with the buyer of the painting as the minds of everyone present thrum with the message: Do not trust this deal or the oaths sworn.   

[In a way, this ‘treasure’ was inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, as every time I see it I am horrified that we have seemingly normalised aerial bombardment as a clean, humane form of warfare. But arguments about that aren’t for here.]    

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Cheap at twice the price!

I recently got a big order from Lulu. Taking advantage of their 30% off coupon, I got the Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion, White Box and Core Swords and Wizardry, a collection of Backswords & Bucklers books, four books by Richard LeBlanc (including his D30 books), and that dizzying expression of what a D&D campaign can be - Yoon-Suin.

All of these combined I got for less than the price of some of the big, commercial RPG books. I have to keep reminding myself of that when I am suffering a bout of buyer's remorse. Which isn't that often, as these are exactly the kind of books that will get used at the table.

(I did feel a bit guilty showing them off as 'rpg porn' on Google+. I half felt a bit like I'd just pasted a picture of my wang and invited everyone to admire, and half like I was one of the spoilt Super Sweet Sixteen 'princesses' presenting conspicuous consumption as some kind of virtue.)

BUT my Lulu haul wasn't the real bargain. No. The real bargain was James Raggi making the Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) 'Grindhouse Edition' Referee Book available as a free pdf. The full art version, no less, so be careful where you read this on your tablet, or where you print this out. No-one reading this needs telling that LotFP is a very elegant B/X derivative, which by a couple of small changes produces a very different feeling game. Niche protection for Fighters, Turn Undead as a spell for Clerics, no flashy 'boom' spells of the Magic-Users, and a Thief (erm, Specialist) that really works. Good race-as-class Elves, Dwarfs, and Halflings, a lovely encumbrance system and a nice clean set of rules for exploration and adventure. None of it radically different to B/X, just different enough that a game run using LotFP will have a different flavour. As well as Raggi's Early Modern 'Real' Earth 'setting' (which would, of course, also make LotFP a good match for a Warhammerish game), I've long thought that this particular set of rules would make for a good OSR Swords & Sorcery game, a fine competitor for Crypts & Things and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyberborea. Lower magic than 'traditional' OSR games, a Fighter who really fights, Clerics that can't simply blast their way through the undead, etc. If only the books weren't full of fantastic, if not-safe-for-work, art that reinforces the idea that this is a game for the Early Modern period.   Sounds good, eh? Well, you get none of that in the Referee's Book.

[Insert body-horror image that stretches the bounds of decency here!]
Whatever image you have imagined, it is probably also a graphic representation of your deepest sexual nightmare. 

No, what you get in the Referee's Book is James Raggi's advice on how to run LotFP. Well, no, it is James Raggi's advice on running any OSR game (applicable, most likely, to any traditional RPG) with a 'weird', indeed horrific, tone. It has advice on designing adventures, running campaigns, and on designing NPCs, Monsters and Magic Items. You really can't lose, because James is a good writer with keen insights on RPGs, and so even if you disagree with him, reading the Referee's Book will help crystalise your own ideas on what is important in an RPG.

If you do want those elegant rules that I briefly sketched then you need the Rules and Magic Book, which is available as free-no-art or pay-full-art versions. Say, couldn't I paste my own Swords & Sorcery pictures into the free-no-art version...?

Saturday, 18 April 2015

D6 Awkward Treasures #1

Perhaps it is the Warhammer GM in me, but some of the best fun I’ve had at the table has not been watching the players’ travails in search of treasure, but in watching the players plot and scheme once they have obtained said ‘treasure’. How do they get the treasure back to civilisation? How do they elude or defeat rival claimants? How do they convert the treasure into wealth or influence? In standard D&D-esque games, the adventure precedes the PCs getting the treasure. But if the treasure is, let’s say, awkward, the obstacles to reaching the treasure can be surprisingly, disarmingly easily overcome. Getting the treasure is a prelude to adventure, a pre-credits sequence so to speak. The real adventure begins once the PCs have the treasure, perhaps only tenuously, in their possession.

With this in mind, I will present six ‘awkward’ treasures, with some notes on turning possession of the adventure into an adventure in itself. Naturally, most of these have the tone of a low-fantasy 'caper', though some have a more magical character. I haven’t given these treasures a GP value, not only because most of these things are priceless, but because if you actually want to use any of these in your game you’ll have to fit them into the economy of your campaign. Obviously the reward must have the potential to compensate for the inconvenience of transforming these ‘treasures’ into wealth, but if the players are making real risk/reward decisions, there must be the potential for them to make a loss - though this need not be financial.

#1 The Ornamental Birds
Rainbow Fantails are beautiful, bad tempered, high-maintenance pets, about the size of a peacock, only both more spectacular and much more vicious. If you didn’t know that these were dumb, pea-brained birds, you might get it into your head that Rainbow Fantails were haughty, snobbish aristocrats, such is the attitude they present. Their highly territorial nature means that they are most often kept in large gardens, where they shelter in miniature mansions and are served on by their own staff. As most Rainbow Fantails that are found in the city states of the Ebon Sea were imported as eggs from Bactaraya, a breeding pair is extremely valuable. And that is what the PCs have in their possession.

The PCs might come into the possession of these birds in a relatively mundane manner, as the loot from an urban heist or a caravan raid. More adventurously, they might find a lost, abandoned garden as they explore a ruined villa and its grounds. They may spot the birds in the wild and, softly, softly, catchee birdy. Or they might be gifted the birds by a grateful, if mischievous, Raja.   

Turning a pair of Rainbow Fantails into wealth or power is complicated. Obviously, the birds could well be highly distinctive stolen goods with only a small, specialist market of buyers. But it is transport will be the key issue – if the birds are subject to stress their plumage fades extremely rapidly, turning a dull brown and coming to resemble to entirely unremarkable Dun Hen.

Transporting a Rainbow Fantail is best done at night, in a sealed wagon, when the birds are sleeping. During the day, they must be allowed to roam, but being stupid, domesticated animals, they must be vigilantly protected from predators. They demand luxury, and time and skill must be spent preparing their food each day, and their wagon must be appointed with silks and shiny baubles. Naturally, they ruin their quarters in short order, clawing the fabrics and swallowing the baubles.

[Each day, count up the number of sub-optimal conditions - food, accommodation, freedom, threat, noise, weather - 'suffered' by the birds and roll 1d12. If the roll equals of exceeds the number of sub-optimal conditions, the bird is content. If the roll is less than the number of sub-optimal conditions, the stress might have triggered the fading of the bird's plumage. Toss a coin - tails and the bird loses it's beautiful tail. Terrible conditions might count double, and if the bird is exposed to extreme stress - if it for example, attacked - skip straight to the coin toss. On the other hand, if the roll is a 12 for two consecutive days the female has laid an egg!] 

If the PCs bore of this, the birds can be killed and their plumage sold for a fraction of the birds’ value, so long as their death is quick, painless, and unsuspected.   

In game terms, handing the PCs a pair of Rainbow Fantails can be used to produce an overland journey during which the players must make a number of risk/reward decisions, deciding which route is best for travel at night, which terrain is safest for the birds to roam during the day, which settlements to make their waypoints for resupply, perhaps with a mind ensuring the information does not reach any potential pursuers. Such a route might well lead the PCs into more adventure, and both the acquisition and 'disposal' of the birds ought give the PCs enemies/contacts/friends among the local elite.

Of course, you could add a bit more magic to this treasure, but this suits my low-magic world. It was inspired by the real world trade instolen pedigree dogs and the international smuggling of endangered creatures

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A Grittier Domain Game

I am a big Kevin Crawford/Sine Nomine fanboy. I wish he’d been given the job of writing D&D5e using his Stars Without Number engine (crudely: Basic D&D with a Traveller-esque skill system), not for the simple, effective system itself, but for the sandbox tools he could build into the game – whether that is giving the GM the machinery to generating adventures, alien ruins, the actions of factions and domain, or the dark plots of those devoted to Elder Things. 

Now, it might seem strange, given that Other Dust is a post-apocalyptic game set in the far future, but the more that I have considered the ‘Groups and Enclaves’ rules in Other Dust, the more I think that they would be ideal – far more so than the higher level ‘domain game’ of An Echo Resounding – for the kind of fantasy gaming that I understand as being an aspect of distinctive RuneQuest play. That said, to my shame, I’ve always run RQ as more or less percentile D&D. The sort of play that I am talking about is that in which the Player Characters are members of a community (or communities, what with cults, tribes, clans, kingdoms, etc.) and their adventuring is often conducted for the benefit of those communities, not only for the personal gain of the PCs. In other words, Other Dust provides the tools to add some mechanical heft to a grittier kind of OSR domain game.

In Other Dust, Kevin Crawford proposes that the engine (and verisimilitude) of the sandbox can be maintained by running a ‘faction game’, determining and resolving the actions of the various Groups and Enclaves of the campaign region between ‘traditional’ adventure sessions. There are different kinds of Groups – Creeds, Raiders, Polities, Families, and Cabals – and it is easy to see how these could be translated into RQ-esque (or other Bronze to Iron Age inspired) fantasy equivalents. Creeds become (what else) ‘Cults’, Raiders could be renamed ‘Warbands’, Polities are ‘Nations’ or ‘Tribes’, Families stay as they are, or are perhaps are renamed ‘Clans’, and, well, Cabals cover just about everything from secret societies to merchant combines. These Groups have Tiers – ranging from 1 to 3 – which represents the level of their influence over the campaign region.

Groups have resources; Food, Tech, Morale, Influence, and Security, and by exceeding certain thresholds – which depend on Group type and Tier – Groups can earn ‘Progress’, which helps them perform actions, but groups also have a certain level of Ruin, which can impede actions (and might lead to the end of the Group entirely, if not checked). Of course, the best – as in, most fun – way to get rid of Ruin is to solve the problems that generate Ruin points by way of adventure.

Most Dark Ages inspired gaming (and most D&D, in fact) is post-apocalyptic – even in heavily fictionalised settings there is a fallen (Roman) empire, barbarian invasions and ethnic conflict, the spread of an millenarian religion (Christianity), and a place for the wandering ‘hero’ and his warband. I have been looking for *my* Dark Ages game for some time now, and I might have to do it myself by reskinning Other Dust. 

Monday, 6 April 2015

Fear of Disruption - Guilty!

I was reading through The Doom-Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children, and in the introduction Raggi writes:

"This year we’ve got a dungeon that’ll work as a totally mental one-shot just as well as a completely disruptive part of an ongoing campaign. And if you’re not wanting disruptive, then what’s the point? “Oh let’s have an adventure that doesn’t look like it’ll rock the boat, I’m sure that’ll have a better chance of getting the players excited and of being something we all remember later on with fondness.” Pffft. You want carefully considered, scientifically tested, carefully balanced adventures that are constructed to have beginnings, middles, and ends, all of which can be slotted into your pre-plotted campaign without changing it? I call those types of adventures ‘fillers’ and once a regular progression of events becomes evident, once the outcomes of an adventure are discovered and known, that adventure becomes boring, and I’d never publish what I’d come to think of as boring."

I'm guilty. All GMs probably are, and a great many adventure designers are too - but that can be seen as necessity, they are writing material for campaigns unknown. But I hope I remember this passage more often than I forget it, and make sure that, as a GM, I'm not afraid of an adventure being 'disruptive' - and that I keep clear in my mind that if the campaign is more or less unchanged after the PCs have had an adventure then yes, Raggi is right; what's the point?

You don't prefer the Status Quo, do you?