Thursday 29 November 2012

Picturing the Game

David Larkins' post On the Value of Visuals prompted me to finish ('finish' = cut the rambling guff) a post that has been sitting on Blogger as a ‘draft’ for some time now:

Unusually, there is no picture pinched from the internet illustrating this post. There’s not even a photograph of a badly painted miniature – having two kids eats time but has saved my old Ral Partha and Regiments of Renown from being crudely daubed in acrylic. Why? Because I want to ask about the role of art (and, probably, graphic design more generally) in role-playing game books.

Some role-playing game books are full of great art (Realms of Chaos – subject of an upcoming blogpost). Some are full of bad art (D&D white box booklets…). Some adventures have beautiful hand drawn maps. But, excepting free PDFs of OSR games, very few are art free. What purpose does this art serve? In many cases, I would argue, the vast majority of this art is only ever seen by the GM. I understand the argument that good, evocative art builds the appropriate mood for the game, although I will say that as a GM I am so thoroughly steeped in fantasy art I can picture a nightmarish Ian Miller townscape or a bright, clean Elmore adventurer with the barest moment’s reflection.

This is not a post to argue that fantasy art in role-playing game books should be done away with, that the industry standard should be the no art .pdf (or .doc file for ultimate in open-source role-playing), but that the time, energy and artistry invested in illustrating adventures should be spent on material designed to be seen by players. I have scanned and printed the illustrations from published adventures, scattering them on the table in order to set the scene, but why embed these in the ‘secret’ GM text in the first place?

Why not publish sheets of ‘spot’ illustrations to be printed, cut up, to either be spread out on the table handed out as appropriate. Rather than dungeon floor plans, I would like to see a compendium of ‘dungeon views’ that I can use to help align the players’ visual imaginations with my own. And with the fashion for one-page dungeons, why not move to three-page adventures – the text and maps on one side of a GM screen and a series of evocative illustrations on the other side? And maps – beautiful maps – all too often the preserve of GM, but as David Larkins points out, maps (and filler illustrations) can set the tone of the game and their visual style, if not their secrets, demands to be shared with the players.

Of course, I could just learn to draw and do the work myself…

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Meme: .pdf? Pah!

Bookshelves, eh? What's on yours?

These are the shelves that have shaped my view of fantasy gaming, I must admit. My entry point, and constant reference point. On the lower shelves are a bunch of Runequest books (3rd edition and Mongoose v2), a hardback WFRP1e rulebook, some OpenQuest books, and a earlier edition of Call of Cthulhu.

Open one of the IKEA cupboards and we get this:

AD&D1e/2e on the top shelf. WFRP1e on the second with a cardboard box full of BECM D&D books (the rulebooks for B through M, the GAZ series, most B series modules and a few X series and up). The third shelf has a bunch of Call of Cthulhu, King Arthur Pendragon, Dragon Warriors, Mongoose Traveller, and other stuff. A few boxed sets, ring binders, and Monstrous Compendiums on the bottom.

Boardgames and other stuff in other cupboards, and scattered here, there, and everywhere.

Saturday 24 November 2012

Covering Warhammer Fantasy

Three covers:




Which aligns with your vision of the Warhammer world?

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Hippogriff Mountain

To bring us up to date with the current campaign (following from clearing Kalten's Keep and the Exploration of the Mire Wood [One, Two]); The party rested for a few weeks, and considered their options. What was going on in Gateways?

+ Elwyn the Renegade Cleric is still somewhere in the foothills of the mountains west of Gateways. 

+ The Elf who was smoking away his sorrows in the Island of Lost Dreams is dead, and so, therefore, are any leads. Who knows what the Rahib has managed to do in the intervening weeks down in Arbelorn? Consolidate his power, probably…

+ The ruins of the castle on the lake are groaning again. Literally. The castle was once home to Gaskell the Black, ‘King’ of the Mountains. Gaskell was one of the last open worshippers of Um’hurabbu, the Angel of Law that was the power behind the Second Empire of Humanity. The mass executions Gaskell performed centuries ago have left a stain of damnation on the island, and the dead regularly wander the ruins. Periodically the ruler of Gateways, currently a nephew of the Duke, Sir Marcius, hires adventurers to put a stop the infernal – literally – racket. There’s a 1000SP reward for any party who can ‘silence those who have forgotten that they are dead’.

+ There is a murderer on the loose in Gateways. In the past week, a whore and a known pickpocket have both been found gutted, their eyes poked out. The local sage, who might just be a bearded drunk with an authoritive line in story telling, sees the hallmarks of the Chaotic Entity Vis’aya, the Dissolver of Boundaries, in these murders.

+ The Beastmasters of Byzantia have sent an agent to Gateways, looking to buy Hippogriff eggs, or even better, a Hippogriff fledgling. They are willing to pay 1000SP per egg, or 3000SP for a fledgling. There are rumours of Hippogriffs nests high in the mountains that lie west and north of Gateways.

What do you want Hippogriff eggs for? Ah. Aieee!

After some debate, the party decided to have a chat with the Beastmaster, to learn a little bit more about Hippogriff, their habits and habitat, and their mission. With 1000SP on the table, they took up the offer, and equipped themselves with mules, ladders, rope, tents, torches, spears, a wardog etc. (they had read the Old School Primer by Matthew Finch in the meantime), as well as a couple of hirelings. I had rolled up a hexmap of the mountains using the system in Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e (the wilderness is a dungeon), and the tables from Basic/Expert D&D and Labyrinth Lord. Some interesting encounters, and with the difficulty of travelling in mountains, the party were in for quite a few days in the hostile wild.

Near where the Foamfall River tumbles out of the mountains there is a small village. Once, it was a boom town, back when the mine was being worked. Now, most buildings stand empty, with a few families of goatherds that eke a living from the hard lands, and a transient population of prospectors hoping to strike it rich, long after most had given up hope. A pretty unlovely place, but they did have a fine line in goat sausages. Tully, the hermaphrodite Halfling, bought a string.

The party discovered that there were, indeed, Hippogriff in the mountains. The goatherds lost goats to these flying predators with frightening regularity. The villagers also believed that there was a Griffon in the mountain, a massive beast worshipped as a god by the primitive mountain people. This was something to avoid.

The party headed into the mountains, taking the route up to the Shrine of Saint Bvarn, rather than skirt the mountains to investigate routes into the mountains around the abandoned mineworkings. The Shrine of Saint Bvarn is a 20 foot face of bearded man carved into a cliff face. Inside the open mouth were barrels of grain and a few other supplies. At the back of the ‘mouth’ there was a closed wooden door. Which the party declined to open.

With no obvious path, the party stuck close to the cliff face, camping in the open. Heading higher into the mountains, they ran out of cliff face to follow. The party decided to head towards the Foamflow, the best part of a day’s travel north. As they came into a narrow valley, the party spotted a group of seven fur clad humans. Or were they humanoids? And were spotted in turn. The party was cautious, and the CAVEMEN yelled out a warning (or was it a greeting? or a threat?) before moving surefootedly over the broken rocky ground and out of sight. 

The party reached the Foamfall, which here in the mountains was a fast flowing river in a deep, sharp sided gully. The party followed the river upstream, until they came to a small building. The party investigated cautiously, and found that the building was roofless and abandoned. A short distance away from the building was an iron gate set across a tunnel that headed down, under the Foamflow.

The party split. One group, led by Tully, readied the building to be used as a camp that evening, while the more martial members of the party headed underground. The iron gate opened to a staircase, at the bottom of which was a dull orange glow. In a passageway deep underground the party found five figures sat in a circle on the floor, their hands stretched out towards a ring with a glowing orange gem. The figures, three large, two small, didn’t respond to the party’s calls. Chip used his spear to send the ring a few yards down the tunnel. The desiccated ZOMBIES groaned; some turned to desperately follow the ring, the others attacked, but the party made short work of these slow, brittle monsters. With the Zombies reduced to dust, Chip took the ring. The gem a pulsating, glowing orange, he ignored the warnings of his comrades and put the ring on. A sense of warmth coursed pleasantly through his body.

Declining to investigate the tunnels under the Foamflow any deeper, the party returned to the surface and enjoyed a Halfling cooked meal. The party surmised that the building was a shelter for goatherds and other mountain travellers, but with it in such a poor state of repair, a family had sought shelter from the elements underground. How long they had been down there before they had died, and how long they had been undead, it was impossible to say. As was the relationship between the glowing orange ring and their undeath...  

Sunday 18 November 2012

Disease and Disaster in Hammerstein!

There is plenty of death in Hammerstein! But there are no mundane diseases or natural disasters. That’s not because I am after a game world completely lacking the knee-deep in syphilitic shit vibe of WFRP (our next game will involve revisiting the WFRP1e rules to run a slightly higher-fantasy sandbox game [i.e. Hammerstein!]). It’s because there is just no need for mundane disease and disaster – in fact, there is no place for them – in a world in which diseases can be caused by plague demons, curses and warpstone, and in which natural disasters can result from the whims of supernatural entities, from local nature spirits to weather gods, and the intervention of sorcerers. Who needs chaotic weather patterns when you have Chaos?

In a world of gods, demons, and magic, the evils of the world are deliberate. Darwin’s reaction to the reproductive cycle of the ichneumon wasp was to question his theism; what manner of benevolent deity would produce a world that included a creature whose existence depended on such a vile process. But in Hammerstein!, of course, the world did not arise out of the operation of the amoral laws of nature, and it was not created by a single, benevolent deity. Rather, it was the creation of a pantheon of self-interested supernatural beings (and these gods made men, they are not man-made gods), and has been shaped by the actions of all manner of supernatural forces, from the unknowable extra-dimensional whims of the many-angled demons and angels, to the more human, and humanely cruel, passions of wizards and warlocks. In this world, something like the ichneumon wasp would not cause anyone to question their belief in the supernatural; it would be quite correctly understood as the creation of a cruel god, vile demon, or even the invention of a powerful, wicked mortal. 

So, in Hammerstein! there are plagues and floods, crop blights, droughts, and earthquakes – but these are always fantastical in origin. The physics of the world is just… different. The gaming side effect of this is that PCs can always intervene heroically. Or at least, die trying. When the city is riddled with plague, the PCs can root out the Cult of the Weeping Pustule. If the Abby of St Albrax has been reduced to rubble by an earthquake, the PCs can investigate the reason why the Earth Elementals are angry. That’s a more adventuresome world than one in which end up playing Dr John Snow in Middenheim, or quiz professors of seismology at the universities of Genezia before recommending changes to the planning regulations. That might be a game, but it isn’t one of fantasy adventure. 

In Hammerstein!, this picture isn’t an artistic representation of the horrors of plague. It’s nigh-on documentary! 

Does YOUR fantasy world have mundane disease, ordinary famines, and the like? Does it also have monsters, curses, warlocks, and the stalking undead? How on Titan do your mock-medieval settlements survive the threat of the fantastical AND the mundane? Do your mock-medieval populations survive the increased death rate with significantly higher fertility rates than would be the case in a ‘realistic’ setting? Does ‘good’ magic reduce the death rate from the mundane to the degree that the fantastical is required just to prevent a population explosion? Is the fantastical so marginal that is simply does not intrude on the lives of the ordinary people, being the stuff of the frontier, so that the terrors of heroes and villains is just legend to the smallfolk?

[This post brought to you in line with the principles set out in Titanic Bullet Points

Friday 9 November 2012

Jenny Greenteeth and the Mire Woods: Part 2

After several weeks of game time rest, the adventure in the Mire Woods continued:

The Party (this time consisting of Chip, Dale, Petra, Myna (an Elf, played by A), and Tully (a hermaphrodite Halfling, played by C), with BRAN, a porter, and GILGRIM, a man-at-arms) returned to the Mire Woods to investigate the temple. They found the cottage of JENNY THE HAG, who confounded the Party with her invisibility. She eventually bargained with the Party, once she was satisfied that a bunch of armed men and women were not there to rob that. She exchanged a Potion of Invisibility for some tobacco and the promise of something interesting, magical, or arcane from the Mixie’s temple.

Travelling up the Vein, the Party killed a GIANT CRAB and a MIXIE, before avoiding a nest of STIRGES and more GIANT LEECHES as they surveyed the area around the temple. They found that the ‘throne’ moved to reveal a trap door, and explored the underground complex. Quickly locating the likely location of the Mixies (a warm door with a sweet smell), the Party decided to explore before confronting the Mixies. They found a sacrificial altar guarded by short SKELETONS with the top of their skull removed and silver coins in their eye sockets. They found a statue of a beautiful woman with the top of her head missing and something in the ‘bowl’. The party did not look inside. They found a circular room with a spiral mosaic on the floor. At the centre was a bed, with a plaque that read; “rest ye here and be reborn”. Underneath the bed was a trapdoor and mechanism of some kind, which they declined to investigate further. They found a terrifying nightmare frieze depicting a journey to Hell, which could incapacitate the weak-minded. With time, real and in-game (the party wanted to be out of the Mire Woods before nightfall), they charged into the room that they suspected to be the lair of the Mixies - and they were right. The Mixies were cut down in short order, managing only to Charm Bran and leave Petra with a broken arm (8 weeks out).

The party recovered a great haul worth about 4000SP. In the hands of the statue of D’NAMNAS (depicted as a pissing, rearing black horse, with human hands and spider-eyes made of jewels) they found 10 Gold Crowns from the Second Empire of Humanity. They left one in the Demon’s hands, and gave the other 9 to Jenny the Hag, who claimed to be able to feel the weight of evil. She rewarded them with another Potion of Invisibility.

Other Goings On in Gateways:

The Bishop's agents are still looking for adventurers to investigate the renegade Cleric Elywn.

Several parties went through the trap door in Kalten's Keep. None returned, until last week, when Jorkal climbed out of a secret passage in the woods, laden with treasure. None of his party survived - he described a warren of crypts filled with undead, and a secret ossuary filled with laughing skulls. Jorkal has been drinking and whoring away his treasure; he was a taciturn humourless man before striking rich, but since his return, laden with silver and gold, he has been a changed man.

The Elf in the Isle of Lost Dreams (a black lotus den) eventually wasted away. The Party saw his body being loaded in a coffin and surrounded by ice - the madam of the 'Isle' sold his possessions, and then sold his body to agents of RANGA MARR, a wizard and anatomist in Mirror Bay. Apparently, he is experimenting with reproducing Elven 'infravision' - the ability to see in the infrared spectrum.

An old sage heard the Party’s stories of the Mixies and launched into an exposition on D'namnas, a Chaotic demon associated with dreams and nightmares. The spider eyed, human handed horse is one of his forms. Mixies, he claimed, were once Elves, but sometime during the Second Empire of Humanity they became degenerate through their worship of Chaos. He has read, he said, that they reproduce through the nightmares of their victims.

A Green Dragon flew over the town. Some of the guards in the High Tower were foolish enough to loose arrows at it - annoyed, it wheeled in the sky and exhaled a cloud of noxious green gas, before swooping over a nearby farm, plucking several cows from the ground. It disappeared, heading towards the highland east of Kalten's Copse. When help reached the High Tower, they found the bodies of the guards, skin blistered and burned and their tongues swollen in their heads.