athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
This session began with the characters at the bottom of the Rabbit
Hole. In the middle distance, a small glass table. They trudged over
there to find, as expected, a tiny gold key, a glass bottle with a DRINK
ME label, a small door behind a curtain, and a tiny glass box with an
even tinier EAT ME cake.

Jana smelled that Melanie had gone -- here we "arbitrarily" picked an
orientation, which means I just did my Wonderland-As-Manhattan thing --
north, and they followed the scent. They lost the scent somewhere in
the woods, but Jana was able to use regular old Tracking to find hiking
boot prints. They followed those up to a clearing where they saw a few
houses with anthropomorphic playing cards doing gardening stuff out
front, and a palace.

They approached one of the cards--the Ten of Spades--who immediately
prostrated himself before the party. A little questioning revealed that
Melanie was a guest of the King, in the castle. So they went there and
found the way blocked by a scorpion-man guard. Theodore fast-talked him
into announcing him and his retinue, and they were shown into the

The King and Queen were on their thrones. The King looked pretty much
like Rudy Ray Moore in _Dolemite_, and the queen looked like Beyonce at
the Met. Although suspicious, the King admitted that Silverman was his
guest and that if she wanted to meet the party (since Venkman knew her),
she was free to do so; he dispatched a Snake-footman to inquire. The
Queen was eyeing Theodore appreciatively.

Melanie showed up, confirmed that she knew Venkman, and asked the King
for a little privacy, which he graciously granted; so the party repaired
to a circular curtained booth in a little alcove and got the infodump
from Melanie. She seemed healthy and not at all worried that she was
going insane; she reported that things had gotten a lot better for her
when she reached Wonderland and realized that she knew her way around
pretty well and that if it was a hallucination, at least it was a
detailed and consistent one. And now that Professor Venkman and his
friends were here, then it seemed that she wasn't even alone. She did
want to go home, and when offered Snowdrop, seemed ready to run away to
find a mirror to duck into Looking-Glass Land and then shake the kitten,
to get herself home. Theodore persuaded her out of this and she agreed
to travel with the party, if she got to hold the kitten once they were
in Looking-Glass World, and maybe they'd all get home. Melanie had been
through a mirror once, when she sneaked into the Diamond Palace. She'd
emerged in a scary dark wood, hadn't explored much, and had come back
through the mirror.

Someone wondered where the Aces were, which Melanie realized she'd never
thought to ask.

The party experimented with the idea that the world was a consensual
dream, and everyone thought of _The Hobbit_ really hard, and the door to
Bag End (with a slightly weathered G-Rune) appeared. They peeked in,
and it did appear to be an empty Bag End. The Cheshire Cat, who had
been following them for some time, was spotted, and after some
conversation (in which he said, among other things, that the Footmen
were as native as he was) he went in to explore Bag End.

The Knave of Spades (picture a very young Billy Dee Williams) made sure
that he had invited Jana to the Ball that evening, and asked the King
and Queen to provide dress clothing for the party; however they would
have to procure their own hats, and so it was off to find the Mad
Hatter. Venkman closed the door to Bag End, but the Cat scampered out
just before it swung to.

They traipsed through the woods, skirted the clearing with the Heart
Palace--noticing as they did that it was right next to no-shit-Grand
Central Station--and down a path where they met the Caterpillar.
Venkman and Luz both got super-high, and they had an irritating
conversation with the Caterpillar that resulted in him telling them
where to find the Hatter, that Grand Central Station was the Court, and
that one side makes you larger (maybe then Theodore would fit his name),
and one side makes you smaller. They took some mushroom bits and
continued on their way.

The Mad Tea Party was as described, but on discovering that they were
there for business, the Hatter led them through the woods to his shop,
and outfitted them with appropriate headgear: Luz got a Scribe's Hat
(halfway between a chef's hat and a mortarboard), Venkman got a Huggy
Bear hat in red, Theodore got a spectacular top hat, and Jana received a
plague doctor's mask with steampunk goggles. Theodore noticed that,
oddly, there were no mirrors in the shop. That was, the Hatter
explained, because the inhabitants of Wonderland didn't want Those
People, from The Other Side Of The Mirror, coming to Wonderland.

The Hatter did not appear particularly Mad, and under questioning
revealed that Carroll had indeed visited several times ... some time ago
(his watch hasn't run right since it got butter in the works and no one
was able to fix it). He thought that if the party were supposed to be
in Wonderland they'd have a badge of authority, which Carroll had had,
but he didn't know if it really belonged to him. Also, the Footmen were
as native as he himself, and that Carroll used to stay at the White
Rabbit's house -- which happened to be more or less on the way back to
the Spade Palace. More outside intruders had been coming to Wonderland,
and he was worried that this meant that the Red King was going to wake
up, or something. At any rate, it was going to be bad. The Queen of
Hearts had been getting steadily more paranoid as the traffic increased,
and it seemed like things were falling apart and he didn't know if
they'd last as long as they needed to. The Cheshire Cat confirmed. The
New York from which the players came was clearly referred to as
Upstairs, and there was a Downstairs, access to which had something to
do with the Aces, which were, the Cat and Hatter said, both monstrous
and not. There was also a way to get Downstairs in the Court, but it
was pretty much controlled by the Hearts.

The party walked a little while and found the White Rabbit's house. The
Rabbit's footperson Mary Ann (a Lion-woman) opened the door and promptly
fainted. The Rabbit came downstairs, revived her with sal volatile
(after Luz's attempt to render first aid got him nothing more than an
"unhand my chambermaid, sir!" from the Rabbit), and interrogation
commenced. The Rabbit demanded to see the Party's Badge, and Theodore
bluffed and charmed his way into convincing the Rabbit that the badge
was rightfully the party's and they needed it back. After some
rummaging and hemming and hawing, the Rabbit surrendered it, and Jana
*finally* understood that the Rabbit and Woody Allen were one and the
same (she'd been blowing Smell rolls right and left).

The Badge had belonged to Reverend Dodgson. He hadn't come around in a
long time, and had left it in his nightstand. The Rabbit had been using
it to lead an exciting double life by going Upstairs and enjoying the
amenities of New York. The White Rabbit was quite sad that he couldn't
have his Upstairs persona anymore, but being a nervous and neurotic
sort, he was quite willing to agree that things had been getting worse,
that the Red King was in some kind of trouble, and that the Queen would
have him executed if anyone ever found out any of this, and maybe it was
better if the party had it and could fix things only Please Don't Kill
Us All.

The Badge looked like an MI-6 Warrant Card to Theodore, and like a DOD
badge with scary endorsements to everyone else. The Rabbit said it had
a big red Zero on it when he looked at it, and he said he could get up
to Weird New York, and then Real New York, by saying "Ed" and pointing
up or down. He had never tried to use it to go farther Downstairs,
though. He had been to Looking-Glass Land and found it terrifying, so
he returned. He also said there were multiple Weird New Yorks. There
was the one they'd been through, there was a futuristic rocket-shippy
one, and there was a hot sandy mostly empty one, and he let slip that
Weird New York was some kind of testing grounds. Everyone was pretty
weirded out by the idea that somehow Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land
were supporting our reality and a good deal of Sanity was lost.

The Rabbit also confirms that the various Sumerian-ish animal-men are
"as native as I am." When asked how long he's been in Wonderland, he
says "since the beginning."

Eventually The Rabbit also revealed that he possessed a Looking-Glass,
and the party worked out a way that he could turn it to the wall but
they could drop twigs through it to signify that he needed to rotate it
to step through into his closet. The party here abandoned their plan to
go to The Ball and decided to just hop through the mirror. So they went
through into Looking-Glass Land, and Luz used the knowledge of the Badge
to tell him that they were in KN3. The party reasoned that if the
pieces were in their original places the king should be at K1, and so
they set off through the woods. KB2 was a Wood Where Things Have No
Names, which was creepy and sanity-batterering.

Eventually they came to the Garden of Live Flowers in front of
Looking-Glass House, and through experimentation realized that walking
backwards would get you to the door. They went in, floated up to the
study, and found out that yes indeed the mirror was traversable.

On the other side, they had their cellphones and guns again, but not
their wonderful hats. It was November 22, 2014 (as it should have
been). Venkman tried some reality-bending experiments with inconclusive
results, although Theodore, who had the Badge, reported that it heated
up when he did so. They called The Bureau after ascertaining that they
were on the outskirts of Oxford, and were instructed to go to a local
pub and wait for a man with a pink carnation, who arrived and whisked
them back to London.

There they were politely but firmly detained, congratulated for finding
Melanie Silverman, and debriefed at length. They did not mention the
badge. The Director, one David Carruthers, quickly realized he needed
experts, and on the second day, Will Brooker came and asked some very
pointed questions about the Caterpillar; he did not seem as surprised as
one might think, given the story. Carruthers said that a team had been
sent round to the house with the mirror, and that as far as they were
able to ascertain -- which should have been quite far indeed -- it was a
perfectly ordinary mirror.

Melanie is offered the choice between recruitement or a lifetime of
tranquilizers and secure confinement, and the Bureau has another junior
agent; she will not, however, be accompanying our heroes any further.

On the third day, the ancient scholar -- known to and by both Luz and
Venkman -- Morton Cohen (Professor Emeritus, CUNY) arrived for a more
thorough debrief. This turned into a deputizing: congratulations, the
party is now full-time on the Bureau's payroll, and they are its eyes
and hands on the ground in Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land. Too bad,
Cohen says, that they hadn't done this a decade earlier, because Martin
was much better at this than Cohen ever has been, but hey, you work with
what you've got. Cohen agrees that the Red King waking, or something
else trying to Dream in his place, would be very bad. Bang!
out-like-a-light bad? New York gets all gross and 1970s bad? Ancient
Sumerian Blood Gods awaken bad? Who knows? Let's not find out!

From him they arrive at more or less the conclusion that the Alice books
are mostly nonfiction, and that the natives are probably right that
Downstairs is very important. If they were to find the Red King they'd
probably find what Alice found: an unimpressive sleeping guy. Something
is trying to mess with the Red King's Dream, but it's unclear to
everyone which way the Ontological Onion goes: are they going deeper in
or farther out when going Downstairs? Which way is "realer" ? When
Venkman and Luz start talking about Reality Generators somewhere Far
Downstairs that are responsible for keeping everything going, Cohen
rather archly reminds them that we used to call that "God."

If there is another Dreamer, Cohen thinks, it's probably not going to be
someone in Looking-Glass Land -- although Alice came back by shaking the
Red Queen, who was the black kitten, so maybe she was dreaming Alice's
story, but not *everything*...but really, he doesn't have much of an
idea. Cohen seems shaken by meeting Snowdrop, but reminds everyone,
"One thing was certain, that the _white_ kitten had nothing to do with
it -- it was the black kitten's fault entirely."

The party experiments (after getting the Bureau to ensure that the house
in Oxfordshire is and will remain empty) and discovers that the mirror
works for them and that the Badge heats up when they go through; they
pull a flower back from the other side, and the corresponding one on
this side crumbles to nothingness.

A week of rest, relaxation, and therapy ensues during which everyone can
get Sanity points back, go shopping for out-for-a-stroll
English-toffs-in-the-country clothes, and check for skill improvement.
A black-powder gun and a hand crossbow are purchased; a pocket Sumerian
guide and a miniature edition of _The Annotated Alice_ are also
acquired. Luz studies some Sumerian and memorizes some glyphs and verbs
that he thinks might help (since, as Luz finally realizes, "Ed" is
Sumerian for "Ascend" or "Descend").

On December 1, 2014 they again assemble in front of the mirror in the
house in Oxfordshire in order to continue their mission to determine
what's wrong with the Red King's Dream and try and set things right.

End of session.


So that's the session recap.

The players took a much more direct route through Wonderland than I
expected. No one messed with the size-changing goodies, and they
haven't yet had to infiltrate a castle to get to the Downstairs. (They
still may; getting Downstairs in Looking-Glass Land could prove much
more daunting than just getting through a Palace or the Court in

I had no idea why Woody Allen was the White Rabbit until the Badge came
along. I knew there was going to be some sort of access token at some
point that enabled manipulation of at least some of the layers of the
Onion, and I knew that Woody Allen was the Rabbit, but it wasn't until
the players arrived at his house looking for the Badge that it all
crystallized and I realized that the White Rabbit had kept
Rev. Dodgson's Badge and had been abusing it ever since. I should learn
to trust my subconscious more. At least when writing RPGs, it knows
what it is doing.

I need to feed it whisky, fairy tales, and recreational mathematics in
the couple months I have before I run another session, so *it* knows
what's going on Downstairs, even if I don't.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
Three Dreamlands: The Sense of the Sleight-Of-Hand Man by Dennis
Detwiler, Dreamhounds of Paris and The Book of Ants by Robin D. Laws
with Ken Hite and Steve Dempsey, and A Red & Pleasant Land by Zak S.

I recently read these three-or-four books, which are all RPG books
about, in some sense, Dreamlands; two (or three; whether you choose to
consider The Book of Ants as separate from Dreamhounds of Paris is
to some degree a matter of personal choice; I choose to see the pair as
a single work) of them quite explicitly so, and the third one by
implication. In looking at them, I'm also going to drag in some of the
other RPG books riffing on Lewis Carroll's work.

The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is far and away the most
traditional of these three works. This was a Kickstarter-funded project
that was initially published in 2013; somehow it had evaded my notice
until recently. It is intended for use with Call of Cthulhu 6th
Edition, but it would be easy to make it work with any other CoC
version, or indeed any Lovecraftian RPG. It would be a little harder to
do outside of a straight-up Lovecraftian game, since it assumes a pretty
standard Call of Cthulhu cosmology and a Dreamlands not very different
from what you get in The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath.

Its frame story, quickly dispensed with, is presented as 1920s Call of
Cthulhu but could trivially be moved to another environment. All the
characters are addicts who have fallen far behind on their payments to
their dealer; in the standard frame it is opium he deals, but one could
easily set it in 1970s Detroit with heroin, or really, almost any place
or time where someone sells addictive intoxicants to someone else, which
should leave plenty of latitude. The kingpin dealer has the PCs all
brought to his lair by his goons, and insists that they share a pipe.
Unbeknownst to them, they are not merely to be murdered as an example to
his other customers regarding the advisability of paying ones'
debts--they are given a drug which is supposed to gradually erase them
from everyday reality and shift them into the Dreamlands. Unbeknownst
to Mr. Lao, the drug dealer, the drug he is providing is tainted, and
disintegrates their bodies while propelling their souls into the nearest
empty vessels in the Dreamlands. The conceit behind this is that
there is an analog of Mr. Lao and the opium trade in the Dreamlands.
The Men of Leng supply dreamers to the moonbeasts, who in turn supply
them with the fabulously valuable Blood Gems.

All this is well and good, but if your players don't like railroads--and
who does?--they are likely to get their characters killed in the real
world before they ever get transported to the Dreamlands, and even if
they go along with the train, they're likely to already be sullen and
resentful even before the next part. And if they make it there, they're
in for a further shock: the bodies they wake up in are radically

The adventure assumes you will be starting the game with brand-new
characters. To be sure, it'd be an extremely heavy-handed narrative
intervention if continuing characters within a larger CoC campaign were
all to become addicted to opium and then have their forms disintegrated
halfway through the first session of this new arc. However, since the
characters will spend their whole lives, effectively, in the Dreamlands,
you will likely get players who spent their time and character points
creating a backstory and set of skills for someone like Frank, the
down-on-his-luck auto mechanic with a lucky tattoo and tertiary syphilis
acquired in Montmartre, with piloting skills, familiarity with an M1
Carbine, and PTSD from the Great War, who now finds that he's a small
Asian woman, and there's nothing more technologically advanced than a
sword in the whole world.

I know that if I were on the outside of the screen that I'd be pretty
peeved at having just put in a bunch of effort for character creation
only to have all pretense of narrative agency wrested away, and then to
have my character given a new, probably race-and-or-gender-swapped body,
with a bunch of skills completely inapplicable to the new setting.

I don't know how you'd fix this without telling the players what you're
going to do to them, which would destroy a lot of the impact. It
strikes me that this is the sort of game you can only play within groups
that have evolved a lot of at-the-table trust--and if you don't do this
well, you may erode a lot of that earned trust. Caveat emptor.

But anyway, assuming that you eventually do get the characters to the
Dreamlands, then the game widens out a lot. It's pretty much assumed
that the characters' motive is to get back to the real world New York,
although it's not clear to me that going back to a grim, hardscrabble
existence of mounting debt and ever-deepening addiction is such a great

Once they awaken in the Dreamlands, they meet the wretched Collector,
who seems like a minor Peter Lorre role. He can provide some impetus by
telling them that if they do not find a way back home, their
dream-selves will sicken and die.

For a book that wants to be a sandbox, The Sense of the Sleight-Of-Hand
reads much more like a choose-your-own adventure book. For
instance, in the city of Sarkomand, where the characters awaken, they
have three choices:
* Try to find the exit to the waking world the Collector told them
about by taking the greased chute to the Underworld. Turn to
Chapter 7, p. 72.
* Try to steal a moon-beast ship from the harbor. Turn to Chapter 5,
p. 47.
* Try to march overland to Inquanok. Turn to Chapter 6, p. 58.
* If you just hang out in Sarkomand, you are eaten by a wamp or a
voomith or something. The End.

The book's title is the title of a Wallace Stevens poem. Each chapter
is introduced with a little quotation from Stevens. Stevens, of course,
is not part of the Weird Fiction tradition. It is very refreshing to
get little snippets of usually-quite-good poems rather than the same old
same old Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard and To Show That We're
Hip, Thomas Ligotti, or To Show That We're Ironically Hip, Clive

Fortunately things get somewhat better from here. The trip through the
Underworld (should the party take it), under the supervision of their
ghoul guide Madaeker is extremely railroady, but the other two options
less so. Eventually, perhaps, the characters will find themselves in
Ilek-Vlad trying to determine what's wrong with Randolph Carter (itself
a rather-nicely-done parallel to the addiction that landed themselves in
this predicament in the first place) and to defeat his nemesis (or at
least, rouse him or some other major Dreamlands power to defeat same).

There are some delightful side-quests, such as the Oracle of the Western
Machine accessible from Inquanok, or indeed the whole Lhosk political
plot, as well as some fun smaller ones (including a nice Sarnath bit).
The midgame, with the characters wandering across the Dreamlands, is
where this book is at its best. It presents itself as, basically, a
bunch of location-centric adventure hooks with a few fleshed out
set-pieces, and they're generally well done, and quite varied. The
Oracle of the Western Machine comes across as almost Numeneraesque,
while The Nameless Rock comes across as ... well, it's not quite Robert
E. Howard, but imagine the better sort of Lin Carter and you've got the

Alas, after having saved Randolph Carter and Ilek-Vlad, the dreamers'
putative quest--to return home to the waking world--may seem a little
lackluster. Should they manage it and return to New York to defeat the
villanous Mr. Lao, their triumph offers little catharsis. The fruition
of the bargain Madaeker may have extracted from them in the Underworld
is much more interesting. This is, of course, the natural consequence
of the dream narrative being much more compelling than the frame story.

Still, as Dreamlands published adventures go, this is a damn good one.
It doesn't really break the mold of classic Call of Cthulhu, but if
you were looking for a solid large campaign, the size of Horror on the
Orient Express
(I originally wrote this before the new Horror showed
up, borne to my doorstep on the backs of six sweating Venetians, pallid
of skin and wild of eye; let's amend that to the size of the first
edition of Horror on the Orient Express) or Beyond the Mountains of
but with the Dreamlands as the focus, you really couldn't do

It's published by Arc Dream press. It's clearly laid-out, and well
copy-edited. I found only a few typographical errors. There's not a
lot of reason to buy the print version: it's completely adequate, the
same quality you'd expect from a Lulu book, for instance, but nothing to
write home about. It's just a bit larger in every dimension than the
Call of Cthulhu 5th Edition paperback. An ungenerous reviewer might
point out that if the margins were less huge it would have fit into many
fewer pages and made a less weighty, and cheaper, tome. The art is also
by Detwiler and is unspectacular, but competent. My recommendation
would be to stick with the PDF.

The second of the Dreamlands adventures under the microscope is Robin
Laws', Ken Hite's, and Steve Dempsey's Dreamhounds of Paris and its
companion volume The Book Of Ants. They are nominally for Trail of
, but as with most ToC works, it wouldn't be too hard to
translate it into another gaming system.

This game is evidently the fruit of a whole lot of research Robin Laws
did into the Surrealists. The players are expected to take the roles of
Surrealists (historical or fictional) in 1920s Paris, and to care about
the machinations of Andre Breton and his ilk as they guide the movement
through the interwar period.

But of course that's not really what's going on. Maybe. The basic
conceit of the work goes something like this: Giorgio de Chirico, having
looked at a lot of Bocklin, finds his way to the Dreamlands in 1909.
Cocteau follows in 1913, and his children's book Le Potomak is a
Mythos tome. Dada does its thing, Max Ernst starts Dreaming, all the
Surrealists figure out how to get to the Dreamlands. They start shaping
it. The Dreamlands get weirder and nastier and then start to bleed back
into the waking world. Dali shows up and steals the Surrealist
movement. World War II destroys Europe. The End.

One of the things Dreamhounds tries to do is explain some of the
(historical) bizarre behavior of the Surrealists by reference to their
struggles within the Domains du Reve. Not to worry, an awful lot is
also still down to their politics and their just-plain-batshitness.

This thing is engaging (especially if, like me, you didn't know much
about the specifics of Surrealism beforehand) and quite fun if, like me,
you keep doing Google searches on the various artists mentioned as you
read it. But that's the thing. It's fun to read, and it's a good
introduction to Surrealism, but I have a really difficult time imagining
how you'd play it.

For starters, you'd need to have a group willing to devote months or
years to playing Surrealists in Paris. Maybe, maybe if I were in
college and all my friends were in the art department or at least taking
a bunch of art classes, I could see that happening. These days? Not
likely. Next, you and they will all need to be down with the idea that
the investigators are, most likely, going to be historical figures, and
that the game will therefore constrain their waking world actions at
certain points (there's also a pretty decent sidebar on how you can
arrange for the dream-Bataille, for instance, to escape to the real
world and take over should Georges Bataille the PC succumb to a terribly
addled egg). And you'd have to be willing to force not just the
real-world, but to some extent the whole Dreamlands narrative arc as
well, onto your players.

I haven't even started to talk about The Book Of Ants, which is a view
of the history of Surrealism and its expression in the Dreamlands, from
the point of view of a minor and forgotten Surrealist, one Henri Salem.
This gives a much more visceral picture of the mutation the Dreamlands
undergo than Dreamhounds itself did. As a general rule, I hate game
fiction. So it's high praise, coming from me, that it's great fun to
read. Really, the best part of the combined work is the sudden horror
when Salem realizes that the cod-medievalism of the Dreamlands has been
irrevocably eroded: he discovers that the ninth month of the dream-year
is no longer "Basalt" but "Machinegun."

That's where this piece shines. It's a weird allegorical
reinterpretation of RPGing itself, I think. Maybe capitalism in
general. Hear me out. My thesis goes something like this: Gygax and
Arneson gave us a world where, sure, the trade dress was Late Middle
Ages France Without The Cholera, but the stories? Westerns. Don't let
the longbows fool you: D&D is about How The West Was Won.

Only the Indians were now orcs and hobgoblins and shit, and so we didn't
have to feel the least bit bad about killing them, because it's not like
they were people, right?

Only then, later on--maybe much later on--we said, hey, what? Dude,
that's...a little creepy. And some people went on to do games where
Well Obviously It's The People Who Are The Real Monsters. The thing is,
it's not much fun to kill monsters and take their stuff if you have to
feel guilty about it. Self-aware murderhoboing is uncomfortably close
to straight-up psychopathy.

So: the Dreamlands. HPL's cod-medievalism. Feudalism where you're sure
you're one of the landed gentry, and not a feces-besmeared peasant, and
where the feces and the cholera are discreetly offstage. And, of
course, this follows in a loooooooong tradition of romanticization of,
well, feudalism. Of the Ancien Regime.

Then you've got the Surrealists. Who are, not to put too fine a point
on it, all like "Hey, this Established Social Order sucks. Seriously,
guys, can't you see that it blows goats? It's completely reinforcing
the status quo at the expense of, well, almost everyone except the
very richest motherfuckers."

(Oh, by the way, if you've read this far, you can probably give
Piketty's Capitalism In The Twenty-First Century a miss, because it's
pretty much what I'm saying right now, only with more data and fewer

So, you know, it's hard not to sympathize with the Surrealists, or for
those who'd challenge the established social order, because they're
right, it does suck. But tearing down is the easy part. Trying to
build a New World Order? Turns out that not only does it usually suck
just as much, but it sucks in most of the same ways, only the New 1%
are a (maybe) different group of motherfuckers.

So, yeah. That critique applies to Surrealist falling-out-of-love with
Stalinism, but of course it also applies to our wanting to play Not D&D
but always, somehow, coming back to it. And to Capitalism In The
Twenty-First Century (the thing not the book), for that matter. Maybe
Human Endeavor In General.

Anyway, coming back from that tangent: Dreamhounds and The Book Of
are fun to read. I don't know how the hell you'd ever use them at
your table. If you have some disposable cash and you feel like learning
more about the Surrealists while reading some social critique dressed up
as history dressed up as an RPG (and hey, I thought Qelong was one of
the best RPG books of the decade, so, you know, I'm not being dismissive
here), then you should totally buy this. Or buy it if you just like
Surrealism and want to inflict nightmare-scapes out of Dali or Bunuel or
Max Ernst or Magritte or ... on your players.

I do have physical copies of these. They're...nice, in modern
high-end-but-not-Paizo-or-WotC ways. If you own any other Pelgrane
Press books, you know what Dreamhounds looks like. The Book Of Ants
is smaller, and paperback, but both seem solidly bound. The quality of
the editing is good. The art is all right; the Hugenin cover on
Dreamhounds isn't his best work, but it's certainly serviceable.
Really, though, you're going to remember the art as the Surrealist
things you looked up while reading it, and that's mighty fine. Or at
least, if you don't like Surrealism, there's no real reason for you to
buy this book, so you probably will remember the art as having been
mighty fine, if slightly creepily obsessed with rapey Pianotaurs.
Again, though, there's not a compelling reason to buy a physical copy
rather than the PDF of either of these.

Finally, we get to Red and Pleasant Land. This is Zak S.'s take on
Alice. I absolutely cannot review this in any way objectively. One
of the very few records I had when growing up was the boxed set of Cyril
Pritchard reading the two Alice books, and so for many years I knew,
basically, the entire text of the two Alice books word-for-word by
heart--and I bet if you quote me a bit I can recite along for a while,
even now. I may be the only person in the world who can recite
"Jabberwocky" in less than thirty seconds, and if you buy me a beer I
will do so for you. So: despite the fact that, by modern standards,
Carroll was a creepy, creepy man, and possibly a pedophile, and despite
the fact that, sure, he embodied a lot of What Was Wrong With The
Victorians, I love my Alice.

And then there's the fact that Zak also did Pictures Showing What
Happens On Each Page Of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow
, which,
well, if I were stuck on a desert island with one book, Gravity's
would obviously be that book. You thought, based on the last
paragraph, I was a drooling Carroll fanboy? It's nothing to my
Pynchon-fanboy-ness. The only other person I'm close to that obsessive
about is Tom Waits. Who, yes, also did an interpretation of Alice.

Zak's book made me realize that, at least at one point, he (meaning Zak,
not Tom Waits) must have been almost as scarily into Gravity's Rainbow
as I am.

So: there was no way I was going to not like this book.

Of course I got a physical version as well. And, holy shit, Raggi
knocked it so far out of the fucking park you can't even see the stadium
anymore. Seriously. He nailed everything about this. You know those
late-Victorian-through-about-1920 fairy tale books your local library
had when you were a kid? This is those. It's the right size. It's the
right weight. The paper is not glossy, and it's medium-weight, and it's
cream-colored, not white. And the thing smells right. It smells like
a fairy-tale book. Seriously, if you don't want to take your pants off
and rub up against this book, you're probably a lot better adjusted than
I am.

Jez Gordon, whom you may know from Secret Santicore or any of the other
completely awesome stuff he's done in the OSR, did some of the layout
and maps, but this is mostly a Zak piece.

The closest I can come to a summary is:

This is The Two Alice Books If You'd Taken A Bunch Of Acid And Also
Watched A Bunch Of Shitty Italian Horror Vampire Films.

Nominally it's set somewhere in the Transylvania of Raggi's Thirty
Years' War Lamentations Of The Flame Princess setting, but...seriously,
it's pretty much the Dreamlands. It says it's for LotFP but, c'mon, you
can adapt it for anything D&Dish. Or CoCish. Or Risus. Or, y'know,

This one is very up-front about how you can use it: drop it into your
campaign whole, steal specific mechanical bits of it, use it as general
inspiration, or the seldom-stated #4, which is very endearing: "Some
animals will swallow almost anything whole and some are very small. You
can use this book to kill them— by choking them with it or dropping it
on them, respectively."

The Alice character class (or, if you're going the whole Gravity's
route, the Fool character class) is a charming touch; an
underpowered rogue backed by high-entropy serendipity. If your campaign
has one of these, you know it, and it's fun to be able to give that play
style (which usually meshes pretty well with player personality) some
mechanical support.

The landscape of Voivodja is principally a war zone between the houses
of the Red King and the Heart Queen, who might as well be Dracula and
Elizabeth Bathory, if you'd been eating a lot of psilocybin. But add to
those the (nice tip of the ten-shilling-and-sixpence hat to David Foster
Wallace there) Pale King and the Colorless Queen, who are trying to take
advantage of the realms' weakened states to stake their own claims.
This can play out, if you want it to, as a high-as-fuck version of the
Thirty Year's War, much like the rest of the LotFP setting but with more
whimsy amid the arterial gouts and spilled viscera. Only, like Qelong,
it's a horrible war where everyone's been summoning all manner of
hideous nightmare creatures from the multifarious hells for years and
years and years, and it's all like the bridge scene in Apocalypse Now.
Oh, and every mirror takes you from The War Side to The Quiet Side,
which is so quiet that it drives you mad in a matter of a very few

There are a bunch of political alliances here, none of which are going
to make any sense to the players--I'm not sure they make sense
period--and then the two main castles are described. So, imagine Tegel
Manor. Now take some DMT, and add, obviously, Alice In Wonderland and
vampires. What comes out the other end is a pair of crazy, crazy,
super-lethal funhouse bizzaro dungeons. Then there are three
mini-locations, one of which, "Your Worst Halves," seems to have crawled
straight out of Crystal Castles, although I can't find Bentley Bear

After that there are a few non-R&PL-specific bits: there's a mass combat
system which looks like it's not a bad way to simulate the PCs' part in
a big battle, and a delightfully quick-and-dirty mounted combat system.
There are the usual selection of entertaining random-roll and die-drop
tables you'd expect from a Zak S. work.

I can't even guess about the utility of this book. I've already stolen
the Alice class for the Julian Jaynes-Cthulhu-Alice-JAGS Wonderland-The
Madness Dossiers mashup I'm doing, and I think I'm going to drop a
(perhaps somewhat nerfed) version of at least one of the castles into
the appropriate place in that mashup.

There have been at least two prior attempts to make the Alice stories
into tabletop RPGs. Likely there have been more, but these are the two
I know: Gygax did the pair as Castle Greyhawk sub-levels, published as
EX1 and 2. They're pretty leaden, frankly, in the mold of "let's make
all the animals and people in the stories angry things with a whole lot
of hit points!"

Much better than the EX series is Marco Chacon's JAGS: Wonderland, which
manages to go from author-slightly-creepily-working-through-some-of-his-
issues-with-mental-illness-and-its-treatment-in-21st-century-America to
something really cosmically weird in not many pages at all. It's
nowhere near as beautiful as R&PL, and it's clearly a lot more directed
(indeed, railroady), but it's well worth reading as a
compare-and-contrast. It's also horror, but of a very different stripe.
It's available free online, and it's definitely worth the price (its
companion, The Book of Knots, is less striking, but it's also free and
worth reading if you liked the first one).

In my opinion, you should buy at least one physical copy of Red and
Pleasant Land
. This is, as far as I'm concerned, now the high-water
mark of RPG publishing. Not just small-press RPG publishing, but RPG
publishing, period. The production values on this little book are
ridiculously high. As with Vornheim, I'm pretty sure that if you don't
want to keep the book, there will be plenty of opportunities for later

Zak S.'s Alice art can stand beside Ralph Steadman and Mervyn Peake's
interpretations, and that's no small praise. Sure, it's not Tenniel,
but nothing is or ever will be. In fact, Steadman and Peake also tried
their hands at Treasure Island. Might I suggest ...?

As to whether you'll use this: if you like Zak's work, or LotFP
generally, then, yeah, you should get a copy; you will certainly find
something worth stealing. If you like playing on the edge between
whimsical and horrific, this is probably in your sweet spot too. If
you're into the splattery bits of LotFP, well, there's some pretty
gruesome description in here, but the art is not a Cannibal Corpse album
cover. I keep finding little bits in the book that make me go "oh,
that's neat"--for instance, the Colorless Rooks. I'm not going to
plug this Wonderland whole into any of my games, but bits and pieces of
it will certainly show up for years and years to come.

To summarize: get Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man if you want a big
straight-up Lovecraftian Dreamlands game. Get The Book Of
Ants/Dreamhounds of Paris
if you like Surrealism and want to play with
some political and sociological themes in the Paris of the 1920s and
1930s. You won't be missing much if you get either of these in digital
form only. Get Red and Pleasant Land if you like either Lewis Carroll
or LotFP, and aren't completely dead inside. Get it in hardcopy as well
as digital.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
So, I'm working on a goofy, episodic RPG, tentatively entitled "Monsters and Metal," which is going to play like an episode of Metalocalypse or that Kiss movie about the amusement park.

All characters will be musicians. Who are NOT BARDS. FUCK BARDS. They all play in a heavy metal band, which also travels around and slays monsters and fights crime, or something.

Humanoid races are encouraged.

It's going to be basically D&D 3.5-ish.

Their spells are going to work like sorcerer spells; I haven't figured out the attack bonus and save progressions yet. This post is pretty much to get something on the table for an initial spell list.

All metal musicians have a set of core spells, and then a genre. A genre picks two spells of the appropriate level (or one lower) from any other spell list; you just have to be able to justify it thematically, and the lists must be made in advance. Although there is only one "Black Metal" genre I'm going to give here, it is of course completely reasonable to have "Black Norwegian Deathcore" which differs from another genre only by one 2d-level spell. Naturally, members of different genres hate each other with the blazing fury of a thousand suns, or, more appropriately, the blind gnawing of a billion necrotic corpse-worms.

Core spells:
0: Ghost Sound
Lullaby (reversible)
Summon Instrument

1: Hypnotism
Lesser Confusion
Remove Fear
Sleep (reversible)
Charm Person (reversible)

2: Hold Person
Hypnotic Pattern
Minor Image
Silence (reversible)

3: Charm Monster (r)
Deep Slumber (r)
Geas, Lesser
Sculpt Sound
Good Hope

4: Hold Monster
Zone of Silence (r)
Repel Vermin (r)
Dominate Person
Break Enchantment

5: Greater Heroism
Mind Fog
Song of Discord
Mass Suggestion

6: Charm Monster, Mass
Otto's Irresistable Dance
Greater Shout
Sympathetic Vibration

...and on to the genres....

0: Flare
Dancing Lights

1: Disguise Self
Tasha's Uncontrollable Hideous Laughter

2: Glitterdust

3: Daylight
Major Image

4: Rainbow Pattern
Phantasmal Killer

5: Dream
Mirage Arcana

6: Permanent Image

0: Mage Hand
Mending (r)

1: Cause Fear
True Strike

2: Chill Touch
Ray of Enfeeblement

3: Magic Circle Against not-very-metal
Vampiric Touch

4: Bestow Curse

5: Cloudkill

6: Wall of Metal
Flesh to Stone

0: Putrefy food/drink
Inflict Minor Wounds

1: Doom
Death Watch

2: Ghoul Touch
Death Knell

3: Contagion

4: Poison
Animate Dead

5: Symbol of Pain
Insect Plague

6: Circle of Death

0: Resistance

1: Expeditious Retreat
Entropic Shield

2: Spider Climb
Touch of Idiocy

3: Fly

4: Shout
Evard's Black Tentacles

5: Teleport
Dispel not-very-metal

6: Wind Walk

0: Ray of Frost
Acid Splash

1: Magic Fucking Missle
Burning Hands

2: False Life
Melf's Acid Arrow

3: Fireball
Lightning Bolt

4: Wall of Fire
Enlarge Person, Mass

5: Cone of Cold
Transmute Rock to Mud

6: Chain Lightning
Flame Strike
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
I went to GaryCon again this year, which again kicked ass. I played a lot of Empire of the Petal Throne run by Victor Raymond, and a bunch of other stuff too.

I also went with a friend of mine, Tracy Jo, who has never been much of a tabletop gamer, but who enjoyed herself and who had a very interesting observation.

First, to set the stage, I've been thinking a lot about a topic that I think I pissed Skip Williams off with. It's this: RPGs are on the cusp of transition from product to folk games. The OSR is dumping fuel on the fire, of course, but it's more generally a symptom of the internet. I know that Google+ is widely derided as a failed Facebook competitor, but as far as I can tell the RPG scene on it is not just thriving, but fecund.

But I think a lot of what is going on--and I have no idea whether RPGing has enough cultural mass to survive this transition--is precisely the transition from product to folk entertainment. We're seeing tons of interesting things that are basically people's hacks of D&D appearing--things The Forge would call "fantasy heartbreakers" but might better be viewed as little pieces of specific-culture folk art: "this is how we play D&D in my neck of the woods."

This is, of course, terrible news if you want to get paid for writing and publishing RPGs. But it's awesome news if you're me, or someone like me, who has a day job, thank you very much, but wants to share the neat stuff I came up with or figured out playing RPGs with other people who enjoy it as a hobby.

So, back to the original point: Tracy Jo points out that this is very much what the bluegrass world is like, and that GaryCon felt to her very much like a bluegrass festival. There was the same thing where the old-and-famous-guard jammed with the newbies, there was the same sense of shared joy in an activity that the rest of the world just didn't get, there was the same family-reunion friends-you-only-see-there thing going on. And both worlds are facing the same crisis: the first generation is passing away. The activity is no longer as popular as it once was, and there's no certainty that it's going to survive the loss of its founders...but there's hope, and there's a younger generation that's also passionate about it, although they may be remixing it in different ways.

I'd love to see RPGs become a non-product entertainment choice some people play when they have a few hours to spare, like a rubber or two of bridge. No one buys "Bridge by Hasbro"; a lot of houses have a deck or two of cards lying around, and some tribal knowledge of how to play various games with them. Why should RPGs be different? Maybe someone has a set of books. Maybe they just remember ability scores go from 3-18, an untrained fighter hits an unarmored opponent half the time, hit dice are generally d8s, and work up something from there.

Fundamentally, playing "let's pretend" is never going to die off, and what are RPGs besides "let's pretend" with some not-completely-subjective method of conflict resolution? This, by the way, is to my mind the thing that separates story gamers from old-school gamers. I think both would end up agreeing that narrative is paramount, but story gamers want the narrative to be the result of negotiated choices between the people playing the game (that is, I include the GM there, if there is one), and old-schoolers prefer to construct narratives using dice as divinatory aids: the results of a succession of choices and the one-damn-thing-after-another falls of the dice eventually yield a chain of events which, then, stepping back, you can see forms some sort of narrative structure.

So, hoist a glass to the shade of M.A.R. Barker, or Earl Scruggs, whichever you prefer, and go play something--a game, some tunes, whatever--with your friends.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
For my Vornheim/Gaxen Kane game. Draft 1. Subject to change.

Each time an M-U spell is cast, caster must roll:

SL = "Spell Level"
CL = "Caster Level"

(SL ^ 2) / (10 * ( CL + 1 ) )

Round that fraction to the nearest 5%, and caster must beat it on a D20. 1 is always a failure, 20 is always a success.

If the roll fails, the caster must make a saving throw vs. magic with a penalty of the spell level (so, -1 for a first level spell, -3 for a third level spell, etc.)

If *that* saving throw fails, roll 1d6. The demon powering the spell:

1-3) devours 1dSL from a random ability score
4-5) devours 1dSL maximum hit points
6) confers a mutation: roll on the d100 mutation chart from

We can also use this for "overcasting" ; each time you cast a previously-memorized spell no longer in memory, it is treated as if you added the spell level to the effective spell level.

Thus: you're a first level magic user with _Magic Missile_ memorized. You cast it. That creates a 1/20 chance of something bad happening.

Then, you cast it again: it's now an effective level of 2, so there's a 4/20 chance of mishap. Your third try? 9/20....and your saving throw penalty increases too. can do this for learning and casting spells too hard for you at your current level, as well.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
Well, it's happened. I can rightly be accused of corrupting the morals of the young, just like Socrates.

See, as our old RPG group withered due to player attrition and apathy, Amy and I happened to attend "Queenfest"--a party devoted to appreciating the music of the band Queen--thrown by one of our old college gaming buddies. This year it was at the house of a friend of his, and that friend lives in St. Louis. With his wife and their daughter, who has just turned 12.

So I'm now running a D&D (well, Swords and Wizardry) game with them and Amy...and (and here's the moral-corrupting part) Amy and I just gave Alex, for her birthday, copies of the first edition PH, MM, and DMG. "Here, kid. Here's something incredibly addictive. Never did *me* any harm!"

So that game:

It's set in Zak Smith's Vornheim. But the nice thing about Vornheim is, it's a city toolkit more than it is a city. So my Vornheim is way different than the D&D With Pornstars Vornheim.

It shares some features: the verticality, the important buildings built like grasping hands, the Cathedral and the Palace, with the square with the Well and the Wyvern in between them. It's on the River of Unfathomable Despair (Vornheim clearly needs some real estate agents for the nomenclature).

But beyond that....

So, let's see.

Street addresses are where you are on the street, counting up from where the street first leaves a bigger street more toward the river, and the number after the address increases from ground level. Posh is higher up. So, "6 Ironstar Way 1524", where Lady Stiella Görbler lives, is very posh indeed. Her tailor, Unvelt Ohn, is at 443 Toad Street 26: the garment district, but a pretty good spot.

Across the river is Goblintown. The human was sent to find out why many elves are disappearing to Vornheim, never to be heard from again. One of the elves came because the opportunities for scholarship were that much greater; one came because he can't marry his betrothed until he's a Person Of Importance in the Church Of Vorn; and the last one came because she was kicked out of her tribe for practicing black magic.

Which is another thing: I've gone the Lankhmar route, where clerical magic is white, and sorcerous magic is black, and all black magic basically involves making pacts with various demonic entities. Low-level spells are really no big deal. But once you start being able to cast heavy-duty spells, there's going to be a lot on the line.

We already have three competing religions: the Church Of Vorn, about which the acolyte's a little disillusioned now that he's come to the Big City and sees how wealth-driven and corrupt it is (my Church of Vorn? Catholicism with a cosmetic makeover; no celibacy and no male-only priesthood, though), the Titivillians, about which my players know nothing other than she's the demon-goddess of fleshly pleasures and scribal errors, and Our Lady Of The Thorns, responsible for the Thornbabies (Zak calls them Thornchildren, but I thought Babies was creepier), worshipped by one of the three elves in the party, and kinda-sorta based on The Lady Of Pain from Planescape, in that even her worshippers would really, really rather never meet her. She's a beautiful and very severe goddess. Druids--who, if we meet any in this game, are going to be my Scary-Ass Dead-Eyed Killer Druids--dig her.

We know that Görbler is a major benefactress of the greenhouse which serves as the cathedral of Our Lady Of The Thorns, down by the river (I'm playing it like the Gardens in Wolfe's _Shadow of the Torturer_, if that helps you place it). When my group was in there paying their respects, she came in, left an offering on the altar, and began taking cuttings from the poison garden. She took a shine to the innocent young cleric of Vorn (name: Palalladin, played by Amy, my wife) and has invited him and his elvish retinue to her dinner party (which is the subject of the next session).

The group also--since Palalladin decided to make a little coin shriving people in a bar--has found out about Zorlac's library, since they talked to someone who took a lot of money for stealing his master's copy of _The Clutching Cow_ and delivering it to Maarten Tull.

And in my Vornheim, the group has:
a) gone to Ohn's tailor shop, and gotten a quote of 450 gp for suitable clothing for the party. Which might as well be a million
b) gone to the secondhand shops and found three lemon-yellow satin Snuggies for the retinue, and a red zoot suit for Palalladin, and a half-elf tailor who will alter them for the party. They're just renting the suit, and Palalladin's longbow is the collateral for it.
c) paid a visit to Zorlac, who understood immediately what services the group was offering, in terms of book acquisition from the recalcitrant, and has opined that he sure could use a copy of "Anatomy of the Goblinoid Races", which was written by a Goblin scholar at the University within Gaxen Kane. Since the poor benighted goblins don't have the printing press, no more than a dozen copies are known to exist, and all else being equal, he'd like one of the five manskin-bound presentation copies, thank you.
d) Found that Görbler has been a widow for about ten years, and is known for i) taking a succession of younger, handsome lovers, who never last long, and ii) throws extravagant, themed dinner parties. One was entirely in utter darkness, for instance (Eshrigel was invited, although the players don't know this, and enjoyed a party where she could go maskless), and another one had all the guests given water breathing spells and was a fourteen-course dinner served and eaten underwater.

So play has currently broken off the afternoon before Görbler's party. After that (whatever may happen), the group is planning to try to attach themselves to a diplomatic mission to Gaxen Kane to get access to a book they can steal.

See, the goblins in *my* Vornheim...well, they don't walk on the ceiling. But there's a good reason that the way they talk sounds very backwards to humans. In short, the entire metaphorical structure of their society is based on the idea that down is good and up is bad (and if pressed, I intend to say that their language is like Latin or German where the verb goes at the end, as opposed to Common, which is pretty much English). Almost all of Gaxen Kane is belowground; the aboveground watchtowers are what you get sentenced to when you've really pooched your military career. The goblins in Vornheim? Really troubled sorts. Calling someone a "low-down dirty rat" is a high compliment in Goblin. The earth is the nurturing womb of the Goblin races (this may, or may not, be a metaphor), so dirty is holy. Rats burrow and dig and are sacred animals. Low-down speaks for itself. And the goblins consider all stone and metals rightfully theirs. The surface dwellers have those nasty-ass trees--why do they have to steal stone and metal from the Goblinish folk to build their buildings and make their tools? (If you're detecting some Baum Nomes here, yeah, you're totally right).

Vornheim and Gaxen Kane are at peace, though kind of hostile. Each has an embassy in the other. Vornish diplomats hate it there--in fact, most of the recent ones have been clergy of Titivilla, being punished for their heretical faith. But Vornheim buys mushroom wine, dried fungus, and spider silk from the Goblin Lands, and the Goblins import wooden furniture, textiles, and some grain from the human world. Walking--well, stooping at best, and crawling much of the time--in Gaxen Kane, for your typical adventuring party, is about as hazardous as, in our world, for your basic suburbanite to saunter carefree around North St. Louis or Detroit. It's not instant death, but the odds are good that, pretty soon, something unpleasant is likely to happen to you. To be fair, that's pretty much also exactly what happens if you're a goblin in Vornheim, and you wander out of your ghetto alone.

So far, we're having fun...but we've played two entire sessions with zero combats, which has been kind of weird for me.

[EDIT] Oh dear, he said, in some consternation. Prompted by a niggling little voice at the back of my head, I got down _GURPS: Goblins_--a volume for which I have playtest credit--from the shelf.

It appears that we are not actually playing D&D (or even S&W). Rather, we are playing _GURPS: Goblins_ with a variant ruleset.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
This is a response to Zak Smith's post:

Which is in turn a response to Steve Yegge's G+ post about Platform vs. Product at Amazon vs. Google:

This deserves more space and thought than it's gonna get here. One of these days, maybe.

I come to it from...well, OK, let's put it this way:
1) the group I'm leaving at work to go join Infrastructure was called Platform Engineering
2) I applied (unsuccessfully) for Google SRE
3) I've played D&D for more than 30 years (holy shit, he said, as the realization of THAT hit him)
4) I appear to be obsessed with collecting, reading, and often trying to play D&D variants.

So: D&D is *of course* a platform. It's an extensible framework for building The Awesome on.

The interesting discussion comes from what parts of D&D are Platform, and what parts are Product.

And, you know what? There's actually a canonical legal answer to that. That would be the d20 SRD.

Now of course that only really refers to Type III, but still, that's going to be a useful and not-wholly-inaccurate starting point. The Platform is everything that you could extend with the OGL.

Of course, that's way too big. The Platform as thus-defined contains a hell of a lot of Product. The way I currently like looking at this is the question "What Is The Essence Of D&D?" I remember several months, maybe longer, ago, reading someone's argument in the OSR Blogosphere about: "Six ability scores, saving throws, classes, levels, Vancian magic, abstract hit points, fantasy-melange setting" and probably some other stuff I've forgotten about.

Me, I'd say even that's too big a tent. I'd say that Microlite20 and, especially, Microlite74 ( are D&D...but they have 3 ability scores and no Vancian magic.

And then there are experiments like Terminal Space--or for that matter, Gamma World--that use the D&D Platform to do completely different genres. And given that GW and Boot Hill were TSR games, clearly Gary and Co., early on, saw D&D as a Platform.

The point is: whatever that irreducible core of D&D is is *definitely* Platform, not Product. Platformy bits go out at least as far as the borders of the SRD, although towards the edges it's mostly more Product than Platform.

To bring it back around: Platforms by their nature say, "Hey! Go make something cool with this." Products don't, although they may not discourage it either. The OSR, and gamers who dig stuff like the OSR (and, although it will make them vomit into their hipster goatees, I include Forgeites in this) inherently dig Platforms over Products. Sandbox play? Platform. Dragonlance? Product. Vornheim? Some of both. The Zoo? Product. The charts? Platform. The city itself...more Platform than Product.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
Yesterday was my turn to plan a training for Gateway Search Dogs, a group to which I belong. It's a bunch of people who train their dogs to find lost people. We're available for callout by local, state, or federal authorities; a lot of smaller police and fire departments don't have the resources to have their own search dogs, and they believe (quite probably rightly) that their money is better spent on equipment and training that's more generally applicable. So that's where we come in.

Anyway, I decided to do a scenario problem (we do a few of these a year, although most trainings are just those where the various dog handlers and ground-pounders tell the trainers what they want to work on, and the trainers set up those exercises). The setup was this:

Hank Riley, his buddy Jim Ireland, Hank's girlfriend Tiffany Turnipseed, and two other friends named Martin and Jason, had, last Wednesday evening, gone up to the TV tower at the top of Charbonier Bluff at the north end of St. Stanislaus Conservation Area, to drink beer and hang out.

After a few beers, a minor tiff ensued between Hank and Tiffany, and the party split up to go its separate ways; Hank was parked at the south parking lot, and everyone else at the east parking lot. The other four left hank with the last two beers at the TV tower.

Hank didn't show up at their usual Thursday night hangout, a local bar where they'd meet to play trivia. Calls to his cellphone went to voicemail. Friday morning, TIffany had begun to become a little concerned, and called Trader Joe's where Hank worked, only to find out his sorry ass had just been fired, because he hadn't shown up for work Thursday or Friday, and had offered no explanation. On her lunch break she went by the south parking lot and saw that his car was still there. She called the police, who called Gateway Search Dogs to work on Saturday morning.

So, given this setup, I presumed that the other people in the unit were expecting about a 2/3 probability that Hank, played by Stinky Sam (our training dummy in whom we often hide cadaver source), would be found dead of some misadventure at the bottom of a ravine or something, and about 1/3 that I'd have someone playing Hank, pretending to be injured, in a similar location.

But I fooled 'em.

Wednesday, I had gone to the park with my buddy Martin, and we had walked up to the TV tower, and then back down the trail to a place where there was a little opening in the underbrush, which opened out into a sheltered space big enough to stand up in, which had part of an old concrete culvert and some concrete slabs in it. We'd gone in there and hung out to get it all scented. I'd gotten a baseball cap and an empty cigarette pack from Martin.

Saturday morning, I started below the TV tower and left the following clues on the path between the TV tower and the little nook in the underbrush: a can of beer just below the fork that went off to the east parking lot, the empty cigarette pack by a big tree just off the path, the lighter on the path a bit farther down, and the second empty beer can where Hank had left the path. In the fairly tight wriggle from the path into the enclosed space, I'd left the baseball cap and an old cell phone, so the clues were reasonably reconstructable. Hank sauntered down from the tower, discarded his first empty, opened his second beer, stopped a bit farther along to pee on a tree, took the last cigarette out of the pack and tossed the pack, continued along down the path, had lost the lighter a few dozen yards later (I guess he put it into that tiny little right hand side pocket you have in jeans, only he didn't push it far enough down), and then came across lights and people-sounds in the woods off the path. He decided to go investigate in case there was another party there, finished his beer, dropped the can, and then headed towards the party, knocking his hat off and losing his phone in the process.

But what had happened then?

Well, the other stuff I put in that clearing Saturday morning was as follows:

A can of Red Devil lye
Four lithium AA batteries
A bunch of matchbooks with the strikers ripped off
Two 20-oz Gatorade bottles with a pinkish liquid and some sediment in them
A can of starter fluid
Some tubing
An empty milk jug
An empty styrofoam cooler

I also put Stinky Sam, dressed in clothes matching Tiffany's description of what Hank was wearing, with a buck knife in his chest, half-assedly concealed in the culvert pipe.

Thus the scenario was this: slightly drunk guy decides to investigate what sounds like a party. Stumbles into a bunch of people cooking meth. They stab him and skedaddle.

So it was a curveball: the group would think they were searching for a missing person, and would discover, instead, a crime scene. It's a crime scene that's depressingly common in the Missouri woods (well, not the stabby part, but the meth lab part).

I was very pleased with GSD's performance. We had seven searchers (plus me in the roles of Tiffany Turnipseed and Sgt. Frank Booth, North County Sheriff's Dept., and Amy as Jim Ireland), and two dogs, Moses and Cooper, so the search unit split into two teams and each one had the plan of starting at one of the parking lot, doing a hasty trail search up to the tower, and then regrouping at the tower and doing a grid search back down the hill.

I was with Team Cooper, with three actual searchers (two experienced (Janet and Kathy, Kathy being the dog handler), and one novice (John)). Since they approached from below, they didn't come across any of the clues I'd left. Cooper had been sticking pretty close to the trail, but as we got close to the lab, he went right and headed into the woods, with Kathy following him. I presume he smelled all the human scent that had pooled there, but of course it's hard to ask him.

At any rate, Kathy followed him in and then shouted "Cooper! Down!" Then she asked Janet to carefully come up to where she was and describe what she saw. Janet looked for about ten seconds and then yelled "meth lab! Back out the way you came!"

This was exactly the correct behavior. We're not trained to deal with crime scenes, and *definitely* not trained in hazmat situations. So the right thing when you find a meth lab is to retrace your steps back out, and call the cops. It wasn't until Team Cooper was regathered on the trail and Kathy and Janet had told Ron and me what they'd found that I told them it was a fake meth lab, and, in my "Sergeant Booth" role, that I had now made it safe and they could proceed, whereupon they found the body very quickly.

Then I had the other team, which had gotten up to the tower without finding much (since Hank hadn't gone that way), run the trail from the top, and they did a good job finding the clues that led them into the brush.

Anyway, the weird thing is that this was almost exactly like Game Mastering. Thus: D&D is good for public safety. You heard it here first. It was also very gratifying to hear actual fear in Kathy's voice: it apparently looked plausibly like a meth lab, and it wasn't until I 'fessed up that she and Janet knew it wasn't real.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
"Central New Jersey After The Big Whoops" will be appearing in the next Fight On!.

athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
....and my submission is in:

It's adapted from Bring Me The Head Of Frank Sinatra!, which I hope to have done later this year.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
So, while cooking tonight, somehow I got to free-associating on the Spear of Longinus.

So, clearly it's a magic weapon, right? The Nazis want it (well, at least in Castle Wolfenstein 3D, which is, after all, an accurate representation of....uh, anyway). But, you know, it's just a spear that Longinus the Veteran (that'd be a First Level Fighting Man for those of you keeping score at home) poked some crucified dude with to see if he was dead yet.

Now, I'm a big fan of magic weapons in RPGs being rare. I really like the suggestion that All Magical Swords Have Names and Egos Yes Even The Plus One ones.

And I had a realization that--and I would love to know who's done this before, because it's a pretty obvious idea to have--you could have your magical weapons not be "it has the plusses you need to kill this thing," but "it is plus whatever because it has killed this thing."

So you get a kinda Dwarf Fortress vibe going on. Sure, you can have a +1 masterwork weapon that's not magical, just really well made. But beyond that, well, Rockbreaker the club got its name, and its plus, and its ego, from smashing the head of the Troll King Gruthark at the Battle Of Stony Ford 75 years ago. And there's a song about it.

Your Plus Six Sword Of Ogre Decapitation? Well, yeah: it's REALLY GOOD at decapitating ogres. And everyone who's owned it knows that, because after the first couple, the sword started telling them so. It started out as just a couple feet of sharpened steel...but then it became "the steel that slew the Ogre that terrorized the Coldwater Valley," and then things really got rolling. So your magical items become positive feedback loops.

You could maybe even get away with doing this in a game in which magic is only a placebo effect.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
Tonight we had our first chance to play the Mutant Future module I've written, Bring Me The Head Of Frank Sinatra.

Tonight's players and characters: Amy, playing the part of Peter Pepper, 20' tall mutated pepper plant, throwing grenade-like phallic peppers which explode and may cause radiation damage. Also has a heat ray.

Aimee, playing Shrieking Violet. Who's really Shrieking African Violet, and thus looks like Grace Jones with giant purple petals behind her head. Can shriek for sonic damage, and teleport. So her modus operandi is to bamf! in behind someone, shriek, and run away.

Oren, playing Dre the Friendly Giant. Seventeen feet tall, empathic, and with a very very low constitution (and thus terrible hit points). Can also teleport and has direction sense, so teleporting is risk-free for him. And has density control, so can shrink (or expand) opponents.

Keith, playing Lemmy the Badger. Lemmy has a giant wart on his face with a Defective Cerebellum in it, and a Freeze Ray. He also has the Fu Manchu that you'd expect from someone named Lemmy and wearing studded leather armor.

And finally, Rupert (who joined late because he was working), playing Liz the Lizard, who's, uh, a lizard with heat-reflective scales and ALSO teleport and density control (they both got rolled a LOT during our generation session last week).

On the sidelines: Slick Willie the Pure Human lawyer, and Spiny Norman, a cactus-skinned punk who heals very fast in direct sunlight.

So, the characters met up in Three-Arm Jimmy's on the Hoboken waterfront. They then went to the bulletin board, to find that "Have You Seen This Man?" with Sinatra's face on it wasn't happening until Wednesday at midnight, so they decided to do a couple of side items first.

What those were, were "Get my grandma out of the tree!" and "Help my kitty across the road!"

The first one: grandma was up a tree with a shotgun. Her granddaughter claimed it was senile dementia and she wanted grandma out of the tree. Grandma, on the other hand, claimed her granddaughter just wanted to poison her so she'd get her apartment. As it happened, grandma was right; the granddaughter in fact WAS a skank who wanted the apartment. (The BFG figured this out and got a semi-confession with his empathy). The first plan was to go get a lawyer--Slick Willie, in fact--to rewrite grandma's will, but when it was determined that Willie charged 50 gold pieces an hour, a plan B was hastily enacted. That plan was for Peter to lower the old lady down, have her scream as if she was falling, thump the ground loudly, and then have her sit up and shoot her grandaughter when her granddaughter ran out to pretend to be distraught.

This worked fine. Except that the granddaughter was not fatally wounded and went after grandma with a butcher knife. The party chipped in with cold and heat rays, and the skank was defeated and grandma was victorious.

Then the party camped in some ruins. The random encounter die came up, and the result was eight Morlocks (which the players identified as CHUDs, which, well, yeah, close enough) coming out of the sewer manhole in front of the ruined house. Because the Morlocks were tightly grouped, this was NOT a total party kill, as Peter got very lucky with one of the grenade-like fruit, which turned out to have 10d6 radiation as well as 2d6 explosion.

In fact, this one encounter got the party from 1st to 3d level.

Some healing was in order: enter Doc Croaker, a giant frog, and his Antique Healing Tank, which didn't malfunction....this time.

After that they went on the Help My Kitty Across The Road errand. The mad hermit of the Meadowlands is named Otus, of course. There was a Troll Bridge (Hwy 3 across the Hackensack River), guarded by the twin trolls, one on either side, Grognard and Grignr. They do in fact work for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

The Hermit lives just off the Turnpike just to the south of 3, in the big swamp south of Giants Stadium. I used, of course, the picture from B2...and, yes, his kitty Whiskers is in fact the Mad Hermit's puma. Anyhow, Whiskers was "convinced" to cross the road with, well, Dre's density control, a rope harness, and some roleplaying.

Then back to the job interview at the bar, which led to the Battle Of The Bands: a calf-roping contest between our heroes ("Peter Pepper and the Scrotal Saviors"), the Village People, Bob's Bionic Bandits, and Yarn (which was, actually, a Belleville band that a friend of ours played in).

The idea was to rope a calf (well, a Xeno Calf: two heads, pseudopod, corrosive slime) on a field and get it into a circle by the reviewing stand. And if you killed any of the other competitors, your team would be disqualified.

This was great fun. Among highlights of the fight: the Village People continually blowing attack rolls, leading to the cop shooting himself in the foot, and the biker getting his chain entangled with a) his ankle and b) the calf's horns. The racecar android managed to deliver the killing blow to the calf, getting tangled in calf guts, and then fell afoul of the density-changing Shrink Ray, turning into a very very angry matchbox car.

Finally Dre, running on a mere 3 hit points by the end, dropped the shrunken-down calf into the circle, thus getting the Witch-Queen of Hoboken (who looks oddly like Cruella de Ville) to offer the job hinted at in the module's title to the party

So much for the plot so far. The interesting things: the grandma-in-a-tree and the Morlock fight were entirely improvised, and most of the Whiskers subplot was also done on the fly. The Morlock was a straight-up sketch-the-map-put-minis-on-it-and-go toe-to-toe battle, while the calf roping had a weirdly Autoduel feel with tokens chasing each other around.

The ridiculous randomness of Mutant Future does feel very old-school. Peter Pepper is a completely unbalancing death machine, particularly since one of his levels up gave him an extra attack per round. The sheer absurdity of the game is a lot of fun. I've arbitrarily decided mutant powers can all only be used every fourth round, and only four times per day. Otherwise teleportation unbalances everything.

We're playing with fairly Third-Edition-esqe five-foot-per-square tactical combat. This week we tried letting you attack anywhere within your move, and allowing attacks of opportunity (one per character per round) when a foe leaves a threatened square. It seemed to work OK.

We've been using Arms Law and Spell Law for critical charts--basically, each die of damage a weapon does moves it right one column, so a 1d6 attack is A, 2d6 is B, and so on. I should have thought to use it for fumbles as well. Next session.

The nature of level advancement in Mutant Future--and having huge hit points at low levels--meant that the Morlocks were actually (with a lot of luck) not merely a survivable but a winnable encounter.

I spent a lot of time fumbling with the PDF. Next session I'll print out at least the melee, mental attack, and radiation charts so I have them handy.

All in all, though, an entertainingly silly game.

athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
This is from the upcoming (sometime) Mutant Future module, "Bring Me The Head Of Frank Sinatra!" and is an expansion of everyone's favorite subtable from page 192 of the AD&D v1 Dungeon Master Guide.

First, the link to the doc:

Here is the embedded version (hope this works)

Wandering Harlot Table
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
We had an interesting four-hour or so game last night, with Amy playing Anon the Mage and Urgh the Grumpy Dwarf, Rupert playing Father Clancy the Cleric, Keith playing Nugget the Elf (renamed Turdd during the course of the session), and Aimee playing Ruby Red and Bitters, both Elves. (Remember, this is Microlite74: Dwarf and Elf are classes, and there are no thieves or halflings.)

The session started with the players recuperating in the former room of Grono the Bugbear up on L3, near a set of sewer stairs (Grono had been chased down into the sewers and killed in the previous session, but that had come with a big explosion as Clancy had charged into the swamp gas with a lit torch).

It was decided that casting Light on the end of a ten-foot pole would be not a bad alternative. So the party went down, once healed up, to explore the sewers.

And here's where I began to feel like I'd made some impression on them: when they saw, up ahead, that one of the platforms (the sewer level is platforms, connected by catwalks, surrounded by an ocean of icky sludge with occasional mud islands poking up) was covered in webs....and turned around and went the other way rather than face what they (correctly) presumed would be at least one giant spider with save-or-die poison.

When they encountered the Derro mudlarks, they got lucky and most of them were out scavenging the various grates on the level. So there weren't that many, and Sleep is a grossly overpowered spell. Then the Albino Sewer Alligator showed up on my Wandering Monster Chart to take care of the Derro that fell asleep and toppled into the sewage.

Once again, the players were getting the old-school style (this retraining has been no minor effort): after dealing with the immediate threat, they hid under one of the items on the drying platform (indeed, the very canvas cover that had covered up a pit on L1 that they had explicitly chucked down that pit), and did not correct the remaining Derros in their assessment of what the threat had been as they lost a few more of their number beating the Alligator away. And when they did take on the remainder, the party talked Urgh out of attacking the alligator, which reappeared when more Derro corpses went into the water.

There was no argument with a ruling I put together: when describing a near-miss (a miss-by-one), I said "the bolt glances off his armor, striking sparks....wait. You're in a sewer full of explosive gas...." and we decided that a 1-in-4 chance of an explosion, on an attack with a metal weapon against a metal-armored opponent that missed-by-one was about right. In previous sessions such an explosion would do 4d6 at the center, 2d6 for the next set of 5' squares out, 1d6 for the ring beyond that, and 1d3 for the ring beyond that.

Between the cast-sleep and let-the-alligator-get-it tactics, an excellent use of the Big Purple d30 (that would be a Magic Missile that did 23 points of damage), and a lucky shot that explodiated one of the Derro while still a reasonable distance away, the party actually cleared out the Derros without any fatalities (surprised me, anyway), and got back to town, where they had levelled up to 3d level, and could buy a second level spell (Knock) from the Mages' Guild. They were also pretty disappointed to find out what magic items cost (which I took out of AD&D v1, and then pointed out that no such items were available In Town--for something niftier than a Dagger +1, you probably had to go to the Big City).


athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)

July 2016

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