athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2016-07-29 12:02 am

Thoughts on race and privilege in America

Some thoughts on race and privilege in the US.
I had a strange experience last night.
To set the stage: my spouse, Amy, was supposed to teach a dog class. I had received an urgent call to get my ass down the street to the bus stop, about half a mile away, in the Smart Car, so I could give that to Amy, because the left rear tire on the van (which Amy had been driving) had gone flat.
So I went down there, turned over the car, and called AAA while getting back to my house. I got the dogs inside, met the driver, and went down there while he chiselled the rusted-on spare from the underside of the van where it had been peacefully spending the last decade, determined that it would sort-of hold air, and put it on, whereupon I drove the little distance back home.
It was there that I determined that our newish Great Dane foster, Jamaica, had left a half-deflated-soccer-ball-sized dump on the living room floor. He's a sweet dog, but very very stubborn and, charitably, not bright. We'd spent nearly an hour outside with him immediately before Amy left, during which he peed but adamantly denied he had to poop. Then I left him unsupervised for less than half an hour, and Turdmageddon.
So anyway. I clean up this massive shit-pile, and take the bag of crap and paper towels out to the trash can at the side of my house. It's now like 9:15, and mostly dark: there's still some gray in the sky, and you can see silhouettes but not much else. That's the east side of the house, and there are stairs that go up along it to the back yard. I have several pots there containing hops and morning glories, and so I decided to water them, as although we have been getting a lot of rain, the rain comes in from the west, and so the east side of the house doesn't actually get rain in the usual case.

So I've gone up the stairs and back with a hose with a sprinkler head on the end, and I'm standing at the end of the stairs when I hear a whole bunch of barking from the front door. Now, I am aware I've been bad and not closed the front door, but just the screen door, because, well, I had my hands full of a bag of dog shit. So it's entirely normal that the dogs crowd the door and bay madly if they see, well, anything the least bit unusual. I think to myself, "I'd better hurry up and get back in before someone complains."
And that's when I see there's a guy walking quickly up the driveway towards me. I can only see the shape, but I think it's a black guy, maybe in his 30s? Not shaped like a kid, anyway. I'm pretty dazed from hiking back to the car and the excitement and unpleasantness of dealing with the dog shit, and I'm taking a while to form the thought, "I guess I should ask him what he wants or if I can help him."
While I'm standing there half dazed, he suddenly darts left and breaks into a dead run into the little gully between my house and the house on the street behind me, and disappears into the bushes. "What the hell?" I think, turn off the hose, and go inside.
It takes me a couple hours to realize what happened from his perspective. He's in the cul-de-sac, and suddenly there are a bunch of ferocious dogs barking at him from behind a flimsy screen door. He's trying to walk away quickly, and suddenly there's a silhouette of a white dude, holding what very easily could be a gun, in front of him, who evidently came out of the same house that the ferocious dogs are in.

So I probably caused someone to need to change his pants last night.
Now, I don't know who this guy was, or what he was doing in my cul-de-sac. If I were of a suspicious turn of mind, I might suspect he was casing houses to see if any looked worth robbing. If that is what he was doing then I think he probably won't be back any time soon. On the other hand, it very much could have been someone just cutting through, on foot, to get to wherever he was going more quickly. Or just someone out for a walk who got a little scared by several big dogs that did not appear well-restrained, and then a lot scared by what looked like a Missouri cracker with a gun.

But that's the thing: *I* never felt scared, or threatened. And that is all down to white privilege. Even if it had been a robber, what, he'd've gotten the forty bucks in my pocket, and could have taken a shitty minivan with a Thoroughly Corroded -3 Continental Spare Tire. (Seriously, the spare on this thing would have been perfect for pudding farming and not much else, and if you don't play _Nethack_ this sentence won't make any sense.)
But for a black man, trespassing on someone else's driveway, and suddenly seeing what appeared to be a white homeowner with a gun? No wonder it was terrifying.

athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2016-06-29 10:40 pm

Three Prisons

Three Prisons: The Cursed Chateau by James Maliszewski (cover by Yannick Bouchard, graphic design and interior art by Jez Gordon), England Upturn'd by Barry Blatt (cover by Jason Rainville, graphic design and interior art by Sarah Richardson), and Maze of the Blue Medusa by Zak Sabbath and Patrick Stuart (cover and interior art by Zak Sabbath).

I've recently received three RPG books about imprisonment. Two of these are recent Lamentations of the Flame Princess releases, and one is the first thing from Satyr Press. These reviews will not be spoiler-free; if you're planning on playing the modules, rather than reading and running them, you may want to put off reading this piece until you've been through them.

The Cursed Chateau is an expansion and rerelease of James Maliszewski's earlier piece of the same name, which makes it sort of like Death Frost Doom or Carcosa. However, although I've read the earlier versions of each of those, I had never read The Cursed Chateau before.

The Cursed Chateau is a haunted house. It makes this quite explicit in the introduction, and structurally it stays very much within the expectations thus established. Rather delightfully, Maliszewski identifies the specific haunted houses he's evoking as not, in fact, being the haunted houses from crappy horror movies of the 1970s, as you might expect, but rather the (much scarier) haunted houses imagined by the kid whose parents did not let him see these movies but had to imagine them from his friends' breathless reports.

The translation of these movies into D&D modules points to the two modules Maliszewski specifically calls out: Tegel Manor and Castle Amber.  I myself see a lot more Castle Amber than Tegel Manor in The Cursed Chateau. But then Tegel Manor makes me think of Scooby-Doo rather than anything, y'know, scary.

A lot of the Amberness is the French setting of The Cursed Chateau. However, I think Maliszewski is going for a more weary and decadent feeling than Castle Amber; more Baudelaire than Clark Ashton Smith. Indeed, the foreward to Les Fleurs du Mal could just straight-up be slapped onto The Cursed Chateau and it would fit just fine. As a matter of fact, the tl;dr summary of The Cursed Chateau could probably be "Roll Castle Amber around in Les Fleurs du Mal for a while." (One might also note that Room 22 of Castle Amber itself is named "Flowers of Evil.")

Funhouse dungeons get a lot of their fun from how gonzo and, generally, ridiculous, the juxtaposition of stuff-that-doesn't-make-sense is.  Tegel Manor has very little in the way of organization or theme (beyond, "Rump Family! Kooky House! Go!"); it's a terrible read, but it's a delightful setting to actually play in. (If you're ever at Gary Con and Kevin Kelly is running Tegel Manor, do try to play.)

Castle Amber (and The Cursed Chateau) are far less goofy, although they certainly contain their share of WTFfery. Neither one is the sort of anything-goes kitchen-sink lunacy that Tegel Manor is. Their tone comes a lot closer to Gothic Horror than to Scooby-Doo.

The Cursed Chateau begins by trapping the party in the Chateau and its grounds; once they enter, there's an impenetrable force field that keeps the party imprisoned until they sufficiently amuse the undead Lord Joudain, master of this domain, which will break the curse that holds them inside the Chateau. (Note the similarity to the fetch-quest required in Castle Amber to break the curse and dispel the gray mist preventing the party from leaving; however, the exit criteria seem much more discoverable in Castle Amber.)

Joudain and his entire staff are undead, and trapped in eternal ennui (along with any unfortunate visitors) until someone can lift the curse by sufficiently amusing Joudain.

The goal of the module, therefore, is simply to perform enough amusing actions (with few enough tiresome ones) to fill Lord Joudain's Fun Meter. This is unlikely to be discovered quickly by the party. In turn, this implies that the party is going to spend much of its time aimlessly wandering the house and grounds, encountering the various undead NPCs.

The NPCs are quite good. They are certainly the best part of the module. Each one typically has one or a few strongly distinguishing traits, which would help an even minimally observant party tell them apart, and perhaps piece together the history of the Chateau and the nature of the curse. They have relationships with one another. Some are implacably hostile to the party, and some may be neutral or friendly. I am particularly fond of the young Guilhèm and Landri the long-suffering majordomo.

There's a hedge maze with a lilac bush I recognized (as Stetson's) from Eliot but which likely comes originally from a Symbolist. There's also a basement dungeon with a batrachian theme; some sort of Arnesonian nod, I guess. It all hangs together pretty well, in a world-weary decaying-finery kind of way.

The whole thing is--by design--pretty dour and joyless. This is certainly meant to reinforce the themes of the scenario, but it makes the module kind of tough going. And therein lies the problem.

I'm pretty sure I'm never going to run this module for any of my current groups. None of them pay enough attention, and thus they will never figure out how to break the curse. Everyone will get cranky and butthurt. If you have a group of players who like solving mysteries and don't mind a fairly slow pace, you might get better mileage out of The Cursed Chateau. For my use, well, I just can't see it producing much enjoyment for me or my players. That's no indictment of the work, just a realization that I want more freewheeling gonzo and less mannered melancholy, and that my players tend not to be detail-oriented.

The PDF is cleanly laid-out, in black, brown, and tan. What the PDF does not make obvious is that if you buy the physical book, all the "tan" is metallic ink, and it's a much more golden color than you'd expect from the PDF. Yes, this drives up the cost of the book a lot. Is it worth it? I'm on the fence here. The book is otherwise a typical LotFP hardcover: slick cover, slightly-larger-than-digest size, solidly bound. Still, 27.50 € is pretty steep, and this isn't a book that is stunningly beautiful the way Maze of the Blue Medusa is. If you want a melancholic haunted house, and you want a pretty physical book, it's worth getting. The PDF is $7.50 at DriveThruRPG, which seems reasonable for what you get.

In summary: not my cup of tea, but if you want a gloomier Castle Amber, it might be yours.

Next we have England Upturn'd by Barry Blatt. As you might guess from the title, it's set during the English Civil War, and it owes a great deal of its setting to Christopher Hill's magnificent book The World Turn'd Upside Down. That all by itself endears it to me.

The premise is insane and wonderful. Basically, Bad King John was a sorceror, who came into possession of a phylactery to hold his soul upon his death. That phylactery was lost somewhere in the Lincolnshire Fens in 1216 with the Crown's treasure, and John's soul entered it upon his death a couple weeks later; it has remained imprisoned there ever since.

Back in the present of the module--which, not coincidentally, happens to be the spring of 1642, just before the English Civil War boils over--the Crown has now given out private charters to drain the fens; if a wealthy man drains the fens, he gets to claim the drained land (which was previously common-use) as his own. I'm sure that any current political allegory is entirely coincidental, and anyway, those guys draining the fens were actually doing something kind of useful, unlike modern financial services. I seem to have gotten off in the weeds.

So you have England simmering in a state of economic unrest. You have Ranters, Diggers, and Levellers. You have Irish Catholics looking to foment religious trouble. You have the usual LotFP collection of Rich Guys Who Are Right Bastards And Also Secret Diabolists. Andrew Smeaton is ostensibly draining a swamp, but he knows that John was a sorcerer and is looking for his magical artifacts so he can gain great sorcerous power. Of course, this being LotFP, the phylactery is with the stuff he really wants, and when that phylactery is popped open and releases the soul of Bad King John from its long imprisonment, the results will be disastrous. They will almost certainly involve a PC being possessed by John. Hilarity will ensue.

But that's not even the crazy part. No, the crazy part is the Swedish Witchfinder Niklas Brahe. He thinks he's an avatar of Odin, and might actually be, and his plan is to enact the ritual that gives the module its name. That's right: turns out we're not talking about social upheaval, but a curse that will flip a big chunk of Lincolnshire into the Hollow Earth and the corresponding chunk, populated with Niflungr (scary sea-faerie types), into Lincolnshire. The bad-assest of them will be--of course they will--in a castle on the back of a giant turtle, and they're looking for King John to exact their revenge.

Since he died 400 years ago, that'd be a problem--except that now he's probably back, and likely inhabiting the body of a PC.

I don't know that I'm ever going to play straight-up LotFP, and I don't know that I particularly want to run a game set in an almost-historical Thirty Years' War, which is the LotFP setting. Still, I feel like I am a lot more likely to use this than The Cursed Chateau. Although most of this stuff is pretty grounded in the setting, it would be trivial to steal "old king's soul imprisoned in just-unearthed treasure" or indeed "big chunk of underworld flips into game world, or vice versa."

There is one rule-system change that warms the cockles of my heart: Alignment changes. The Law-Chaos axis is replaced with Cavalier-Roundhead, and Good-Evil with Royalist-Republican (the chart on p. 106 seems to be incorrect in the lower right and should be Republican Roundhead, I think).

I freely admit that I came to this module primed to enjoy it. As I said earlier, I love Christopher Hill, and in fact my grad school roommate's Ph.D. thesis was about the draining of the fens. Also, I've played in and enjoyed some of Barry's games. In short, though, it does not disappoint.

The historical research here is good; not just Ranters, Diggers, and Levellers, and their songs, but, most crucially, Muggletonians.  Seriously, these guys actually existed, and are the finest Christian cult ever. Although their God is probably slightly shorter than the Jesus of Silver John, they...well, wow. Mad props to Barry Blatt for not only pulling them into LotFP, but making their cosmology ontologically correct within that world. I'm also a big fan of using the Sephiroth and Tarot to drive game-world occurrences, and it's a thing that pops up over and over in my games, so again, yay Baz Blatt Confirmation Bias!

On the other hand, it seems pretty cruel to ask the reader to peruse Liber 777 to do more Sephiroth/Tarot-associative magic. However, if you really do pick up Liber 777, tell me that it doesn't read like David Hargrave's Arduin tables. Seriously, I'm thinking of doing a web quiz that is "Crowley or Hargrave?"

In summary: England Upturn'd is highly recommended. As a physical artifact, it's an LotFP paperback. Well-constructed, looks nice. It's not terribly expensive at 16.50 €. If you want physical books, great, you won't be disappointed, and if you are happy with PDFs, then there you go; also $7.50 at Drive Thru RPG.

And that brings us to Maze of the Blue Medusa.

Holy shit, is this thing big.

It's going to take a lot of preparation to run this successfully. There are lots of factions and an immense number of NPCs with their own agendas and complicated interlocking plots. The titular character has spent ages in her Maze, largely acting as a prison guard. There are the three perfect Torn sisters, imprisoned. There's a lich who's in love with one of them. There are, in fact, several alliterative liches. There are cannibal art critics in a gallery where metabolism runs way too fast. There's a wedding frozen in time mid-cataclysm involving a machine that turns souls into gold. There's the Medusa's father the trapped-in-an-endlessly-rekeying-puzzle-box devil. There's a Garden Of Live Flowers from Through The Looking Glass only sexier and deadlier.  There are the remnants of an ancient Saurid empire and its library, with mummies each stuffed with a particular genre of book. There's a creepy and genuinely helpful child-ghost. There are a pair of petrified werewolf lovers. There are ....

You get the idea.

There's more than 300 rooms of this, and almost none of them are low-cognitive-load rats and 2000 copper pieces.

I've read through it once, all the way, and didn't manage to retain enough of the structure to feel like I can run it. I'm on my second pass now.

The fundamental physical structure of the megadungeon is that it's one of Zak S's hyperdetailed pieces, with lots and lots of geometric spaces of differing sizes, each with an image in it. This then is used to generate a colored, unillustrated, numbered map, and the dungeon is the map of numbers to room contents (which are illustrated in the actual painting). The dungeon is divided roughly into regions: Gardens, Archives, Prisons, and so forth. This makes it slightly easier to keep track of what's going on, although there's still a lot of classic-fun-house things-next-to-each-other-with-little-rhyme-or-reason juxtaposition room-to-room. I don't mind this, but I imagine it's not to everyone's tastes. There's a lot of thematic consistency, but not so much tactical consistency, which makes it feel different than, say, Tegel Manor on the one hand, or the Caves of Chaos on the other.

There's also a Random Encounter table which generates stuff that the party will have to deal with, and provides for mixing of the dungeon regions as inhabitants wander around.

The Patrick/Zak collaboration is a delightful one. A lot of this feels like the same sort of actinic lunacy that powered Deep Carbon Observatory. In terms of bang-per-page I'd have to give the nod to DCO but there is, rest assured, plenty of bang here too. I'm pretty sure that the groanworthy puns are Patrick's ideas (such as the Lampen Proletariat). There's also a shout-out to Baudelaire, if you're keeping score.

Maze of the Blue Medusa seems like it'd be a hard thing to mine for parts. I suppose some of the NPCs could be stripped out of it and dropped into another game pretty easily, but a lot of what makes reading it fun is figuring out who is trying to put one over on whom, and trying to keep track of the web of social plots. It would diminish most of the characters to disentangle them from the others. In general, I think if you're going to run this, you don't have a lot of choice but to run it as a 300-room megadungeon, which may or may not let players leave once they enter. The obvious way out (which is to say, "the way we came in") comes with a fairly strict time limit, although if the players do the obvious thing, the prisoner they immediately free will be back in a couple weeks with her own small army, presenting another escape opportunity.

I'm not actually sure under what circumstances I'd run it. If I had a weekly game with a stable player roster, it'd probably work, assuming they were the sort of players who liked traversing deadly environments, thinking about what they were doing, and keeping track of the relationships of the people in the game. Murderhobos will probably not fare well in here. Since my current group meets more-or-less monthly, and we rotate between three campaigns, we're not going to attempt this: a quarterly run at it is not going to get very far, and no way will my players remember in July any details of what happened in April--and this module will punish them for not remembering. In fact, there's a living mosaic who makes a point of calling out a party that wasn't paying attention when she delivered her riddle.

The titular Medusa, Psathyrella, might or might not be the villain of the piece. She's very likely to be an adversary, but she's a pretty reluctant jailor. She makes a very good case, to the players and to the reader, that killing her is just going to make things a whole lot worse. One of my favorite items in the book is Levalliant Green, Supervillian. He's a perfectly ordinary guy whose superpowers are that he anticipated it all with DMly prescience, and that he didn't do any of the first d4 things the players thought of. This is genius.

And then there's the physical artifact. This book is every bit as beautiful as Red and Pleasant Land, in many of the same ways: robust fabric binding, clean layout, heavy paper. It is larger than Red and Pleasant Land and will not remind you of fairy-tale books you had as a child. But gosh golly is it ever gorgeous. If you're going to buy this, spring for the physical copy, not just the PDF. The PDF is fine; it's totally readable (although my aging eyes require that I zoom in on it). But...damn, the physical book is magnificent. It is right up there with Red and Pleasant Land as "one of the prettiest RPG books I have ever seen." The hardcover is $50. The PDF is a fucking steal at $5. And in this case, I'm recommending you spend the extra $45 for the physical book--but I'm kind of a fetishist when it comes to books, so cum grano salis and all.

Should you buy Maze of the Blue Medusa? Yes. If you like pretty books, this is a hell of a lot of pretty book for fifty bucks, and if you don't, five bucks is less than two cents a room.

So, to summarize: The Cursed Chateau left me lukewarm, but if you want to run a straight-up haunted house scenario, it's quite well-done. England Upturn'd is an insane, and delightful, picture of a 1642 that wasn't quite. Finally, The Maze Of The Blue Medusa is one of the prettiest RPG books you will ever see, and if an incredibly socially-complex madhouse megadungeon appeals to you, or if you collect beautiful books, you need a copy.

athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2015-05-09 06:16 pm

Fit The Third

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)
2015-03-13 03:14 pm

Three Dreamlands

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)
2014-07-29 08:22 pm
Entry tags:

Fiasco Playset

"Elsinore" is now up, with original artwork by the inestimable S. John Ross!
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2014-02-01 06:59 pm
Entry tags:

Murder on the Flugelschwein Zwei

Today was one of the most fun and most gonzo sessions I have had the
pleasure of running.

A new player joined the Vornheim group today. Ronak is playing Rig the
Fighter (Ronak has previously played in the Bookhounds of London and
Grace Under Pressure one-shots).

Nas (Image), Palalladin (usually Amy, played today by Alex because Amy
was ill), Balin (BC), and Ber (Alex) returned to Gaxen Kane from the
Lost City. They had dealt a significant setback to the Temple of Zargon
and freed many of its prisoners from the cathedral in the Lost
City--although they had not gone after Zargon itself, and they had not
entirely broken the cult's power. Nevertheless, they had unified the
factions of the Lost City and Ber had received a token showing her to be
a friend of the League of Tumultuous Erudition.

They returned to Gaxen Kane and Lord Chalk's (Harry to his friends)
townhouse. Nas immediately inquired after Hrezwina and was told that
she had become a successful entrepreneur and could be found at her
coffeehouse. Ah, yes, coffee. In the few short weeks since the party
had left, full-on coffee mania had struck Gaxen Kane. Harry described
it (and gave the party samples) as "almost exactly the opposite of
whiskey, but somehow equally delightful" The party immediately headed to
Hrezwina's Coffeehouse to discover the following:

As previously discussed, Goblin women become pregnant through reading
saucy literature. Hrezwina had been working--she was a little vague on
this point, but I think we can read between the lines--as a specialty
act in a fancy house, where many of the girls had (well-founded) fear of
pregnancy. And there she made a fascinating discovery. If, immediately
after exposure to spicy wordplay, a goblin woman reads something
excruciatingly boring, it is a sovereign prophylactic against

Thus the girls began reading the shipping reports in between customers,
and plying their customers for details of their commercial lives; their
clientele were of course flattered by the attention paid to their
humdrum lives, and the girls...well, the girls suddenly had a
comprehensive, holistic view of trade in Gaxen Kane. This enabled them
to make some very smart investments which allowed them to rent a
building in the financial district. One of the rising stars was of
course coffee, and now Hrezwina is the proprietress of Gaxen Kane's very
first coffeehouse, where pretty girls (goblins, other than Hrezwina)
serve hot coffee to goblins of distinction, sit on their knees, and
offer an appealing social space (VIP booths with privacy curtains are
upstairs) for them to pursue their financial machinations.

Hrezwina was overjoyed to see Nas. She also had a job for the party,
should they wish to accept in. In exchange for a share (current value
1000gp) in her venture for each of them, she wants the party to secure a
reliable source of coffee for her. As far as she knows it comes from
one place, and one place only: the goblin colony at Tanaroa, on an
island far, far to the south. She currently pays about 50 gp per 50-lb
bag, delivered. She goes through about 50 bags a month. But prices are
going up steeply, because she now has competition and there are only
about 120 bags per month arriving at Gaxen Kane. So her aims are at
least threefold: 1) ensure a steady supply of coffee for her, 2) reduce
her cost by establishing a reliable supply chain, and 3) choke out her
competition, if possible.

Tanaroa is about a month's journey away by usual methods: a long
overland trip through bandit-infested wastes, to a seaport somewhere,
and then a medium-length ocean voyage to the island. But there's also
the every-other-day Hog Zepplin service. For a mere 100 gp each,
passengers can travel in style and luxury aboard an 80-hog zeppelin to

After some scraping together party funds, and Nas batting his eyelashes
until Hrezwina grudgingly gave him a pair of earrings to sell, the party
was able to afford the zeppelin. No one seemed to mind the sudden shift
from the reign of George IV to George V.

In the little while before the flight departed, Nas enjoyed Hrezwina's
charms, while Ber found that the League of Tumultuous Erudition had word
of cat-people, monkey-people, and spider-mages on the island, and were
willing to pay good money for anthropological surveys, and excellent
money for a spider-mage's spellbook if such a thing existed.

The zeppelin carries twelve paying guests, an indeterminate number of
crew, official mail and extremely expensive couriered private mail, and
a few hyper-luxury goods. It is called the _Flugelschwein Zwei_, and is
captained by the unbearably Teutonic monocled Captain Dolf Helmenspeik;
the chief engineer and head pig-slopper is Angus McTavish.

Our heroes met at the appointed time, were loaded by means of tethered
hog-balloons onto the zeppelin, and met the other passengers, all
goblins of wealth and taste. I will number them here for reasons that
will shortly become evident. Major Harrumphitol was actually a Captain
in play, and that was a mistake because distinguishing him from the
ship's captain, when planning, became difficult. We rolled d12s for
everyone to determine who got what cabin (if you got an occupied one,
you kept incrementing the cabin number until you hit an empty one), so
there was a map of people and rooms.

1) Lady Dolores Wrinklequim. Likes: rat-things (as extra-horrible
Pomeranians), champagne, pearls to clutch. Dislikes: rudeness, the
Wyvern Of The Well, loud noises.

2) Major Harlan Harrumphitol. Likes: parade dress, orderliness,
well-trimmed mutton chops. Dislikes: foreigners, change, spicy food.

3) Elijah Goldberg. Likes: fine-and-gaudy clothing, fancy women, pinky
rings. Dislikes: stuffy old-money aristocracy, seafood, responsibility.

4) Miss Veronica Adipose. Likes: cleavage, sultry singing, cocaine.
Dislikes: wet blankets, vicious dogs, bedtime.

5) Edward Moleblanket. Likes: pretty women, fast vehicles, deceit.
Dislikes: former acquaintances, policemen, his past.

6) The Widow Esmerelda Elderbush. Likes: pretty young men, gin, too
much makeup. Dislikes: her age, younger and prettier women, waking up

The first night was luxurious but uneventful: Nas provided a way for
Miss Adipose to avoid the attentions of Mr. Goldberg, and as so often
happens aboard a cruise, this somehow turned into cocaine and dancing
the night away (although she rebuffed his attempt to return to his
room); Edward Moleblanket found Ber and her fur unexpectedly
captivating, although then he sized up the Widow Elderbush's assets--no,
no, her jewelry--and shifted his focus; Rig attempted to strike up a
friendship with the Major based on their military experience and did
fairly well considering that he was a damned foreigner and a human to

Then I had the players roll a d6, another d6, and a d4. The first time,
they all came up 1, so I had a reroll. The next time it was 2, 6, and

The d4 table is this one:

1) Sharp trauma
2) Blunt trauma
3) Strangulation
4) No obvious physical trauma

The next morning the servants woke everyone up early as the captain
announced they must meet in the dining gallery at once. Ber earned 50
additional XP by saying "oh! It's a murder mystery!" before the captain
spoke, because, indeed, it was.

The Widow Elderbush had been bludgeoned to death in her room the
previous night.

We now moved into a classical whodunit (inspired, yes, by the EA game
_Murder on the Zinderneuf_). Some clues quickly emerged. The Widow's
door had not been locked--a maid had been instructed to knock on her
door at 6 so that the Widow would have time to put on her (extensive)
face prior to breakfast, and when she did, the door swung open and she
saw the blood (I really should have had her screams wake the passengers,
but alas).

Her skull had been smashed with a few blows from a heavy, blunt object.
Her jewelery box was locked on her dresser--but the key was nowhere to
be found, and when Nas picked it open, it was discovered to be empty.
Her porthole was undogged, although it had been mostly closed. Some
towels and a pillowcase were missing. The single unoccupied cabin was
next door, and was empty. In that room, Nas found a few drops of blood
under the bed, and a missing towel, as well as a shoe-scuff on the
porthole. He also determined that the cabin door locks were trivially
easy to pick.

An examination of the body revealed some additional clues: bruising on
the wrists, consistent with them being held in a single strong, large
male hand--but on closer inspection, those bruises seemed to be a few
hours older than the fatal head wound. Her fingernails were long and
painted--but unbroken and there was no skin under them. And most
strikingly (it took a while to discover this, oddly, but the party did
finally remember they'd been carrying around a copy of _Anatomy of the
Goblin Races_ in an inexpensive student edition for several
sessions)...the Widow Esmerelda Elderbush was *no goblin at all*, but an
ugly human woman who wore a whole lot of makeup and had been pretending
to be a goblin society matron. She also had a tattoo of a cobra on her
left inner forearm, which was determined by Balin (a cleric of Vorn,
although a pretty halfhearted one) to be consistent with the Yig-worship
fad that had gone around the human world about 25 years previously.

Among the other guests: Goldberg had light bruising and some fingernail
marks on his face. The Major was limping and using a cane (the morning
was chilly and damp). Veronica Adipose seemed decidedly unwell. Lady
Wrinklequim looked pale, sat on the settee, and determinedly gulped down
brandy after brandy, and Mr. Moleblanket looked glumly out the window,
nursing gins and tonic.

Nas was able to determine that Elijah Goldberg's facial wounds were the
result of a slap delivered by Miss Adipose after he failed to take "no"
for an answer. This seemed to clear the two of them. General consensus
pointed away from Dolores Wrinklequim as far too frail to have
bludgeoned even another old lady to death. And that left Major
Harrumpitol and Edward Moleblanket as the primary suspects.

A plan was hatched: Ber proposed a sting. Balin announced that he was a
cleric of Vorn, and that he would stay up all night and commune with the
dead, and have an answer from her spirit by morning. He couldn't
actually do that, but of course the other guests didn't know that. Nas
hid under the bed in the empty room (having also climbed out his room's
porthole and in that one's), next to the former Widow's room. Pal and
Ber stayed in their cabins, and Rig went up to stand watch on the deck,
taking what cover he could behind the Big Metal Box, the Pointless
Smokestack, and the Even More Inexplicable Lifeboat. The observation
deck has a tarp about thirty feet above it, designed to sluice the
pigshit away from those enjoying the view. Rigging and rope ladders
lead up to the hogs, and there's evidently planking and stuff up there
so the sailors can slop the hogs during the voyage.

Rig burned his Big Purple d30 roll on being sneaky while on watch duty,
and got a 13. Which is pretty sneaky, but he's wearing chainmail and
he's human and thus doesn't have goblin night vision.

About 12:30, the Major came onto the deck, and toured the perimeter
checking the rigging and smoking a cigar. Then he went below. Somewhat
later, two more figures came upstairs. They made their way to the
lifeboat--it turned out to be Moleblanket and Adipose indulging in a
passionate makeout session. Rig noted that, at one point, he had her
wrists grabbed above her head in one of his hands as he was kissing her.

As the lovers were returning belowdecks, there was a startled "Harrumph!
I say!" as they encountered the Major again. And then he leaned his
cane up against the lifeboat and climbed the rigging. Rig immediately
ran to the door bridge, pounded on it, and explained to the copilot (one
Kurt Schlemiel) that the murderer was cutting a pig free from the mass
to make his escape. Kurt immediately rang the alarm bells, Rig
scampered up the rigging, and Ber and Pal started running for the stairs
to the observation deck.

The Major greeted Rig with a stream of racist invective (the phrases
"smoothskin" and "bright-light devil" were both deployed), and got both
hawsers securing a pig cut. Rig hit him with the flat of his axe, but
the Major manager to grab a line and began to escape, at which point Rig
tried to sever the hand holding the rope. He didn't quite cut through
it, but he did cripple that hand, causing the Major to fling his knife
(ineffectually) at Rig with his bad hand and causing the DM to burn his
d30 roll for the night: I said that the Major needed a 14 to grab the
line with his left hand and swing away. I rolled the d30, and it rolled
and wobbled a very long time before coming up 15.

The major was just lifting off, but by this time Ber and Pal had made it
to the observation deck, and Ber shouted the line that, by all rights,
should have inaugurated the most magnificent TPK in my personal gaming
history: "I Magic Missile the pig!"

So, a bolt of magical force streaked into the night, and impacted a
bloated, hydrogen-filled, giant hog, nestled amongst 79 other
hydrogen-filled hogs.

Unfortunately, Ber rolled a 1 for damage, (and did not roll a 1 on her
d20 roll for magical corruption) and so the pig did not explode in a
glorious fireball, but began to slowly sink, a jet of ghostly blue flame
shooting from its side.

Rig grabbed a line attached to a nearby pig in the canopy, and swung out
to grab the line from which the Major was hanging. He rolled a 1. This
sent us to my Random Fumble Table Table, which, unfortunately, was also
a 1, which was "Hackmaster," which merely meant "your enemy gets an
immediate free attack." And since all the Major was trying to do was to
climb the rope so he could get up to the pig and put out the flame and
patch the hole, that was basically just a "no effect."

But now as he descended, his legs were within Palalladin's reach, and
Pal grappled him and beat him on a contested Strength check, so he had a
firm grip on his legs and pulled him onto the observation deck. Ber
fired another Magic Missle and handily beat her corruption roll of 3,
severing the rope. The flaming pig rose back into the sky, and I ruled
that on a d12 roll of 1-3, it was coming back towards the canopy. 2.

But Rig would get a shot at it with his axe before it got up to the rest
of the balloons. He nailed it, and the pig exploded. This caused Rig
some damage, and covered him in pig guts, but saved the ship.
Palalladin managed to sit on the Major until help arrived. The copilot
corroborated our heroes' stories, and the Major eventually broke and
snarled that it wasn't like he'd killed a person anyway, and how dare
she pretend to be a goblin and it was disgusting and he'd only found out
when it was too late and he was sure that the jewels (which were
discovered in an improvised-from-a-pillowcase moneybelt around his
midriff) were stolen anyway.


The procedural mystery worked great, although I stand by my decision to
not stick with the 1,1,1, which could only have meant that Dolores
Wrinklequim was told what her name meant and stabbed herself in
despair. My plan was basically to use the likes-and-dislikes of the six
suspects and assume that both a reasonable motive and means would appear
and that there'd be room for red herrings--and whatever the party came
up with, I'd roll with.

So, the actual events of the evening went something like this:
Moleblanket was indeed after Esmerelda's jewels. And he did, fairly
early in the evening, engage in a spirited makeout session with her, and
his MO does include the wrist-grab thing. So that's where the bruises
came from. But he didn't kill her--indeed, he didn't even steal her
jewels, because it's only the first night of a 5-day trip, and he'd be
much more likely to perform the heist and get away clean if he did it at
the end of the trip.

But he did leave her hot, bothered, high, and dry. So, figuring any
port in a storm, she collared the Major, who was harrumphing his way
around the deck and corridors smoking cigars. Only once he turned on
the light to put his shoes back on, he realized she wasn't a goblin at
all, and in his anger and loathing (since he's a racist, jingoistic ass)
he held her face down with a pillow and cracked her on the side of the
skull a few times with the head of his cane. Had the characters
examined it at any point they would have noted that it had a heavy brass
handle, and that it was also a sword-cane. But they never did.

Then once he'd done the murder, he stole the jewels, climbed out the
window and in the window of the next-door cabin, cleaned himself up as
best he could, threw the jewelery box key and the bloodied towels out
the window, slipped into the corridor, and relocked the door with his
pen-knife (the Major, as it turns out, is no stranger to skulduggery).


So, the murder was solved, the zeppelin was saved, and the rest of the
trip was uneventful, although Miss Adipose was ever so grateful to Nas
Foullurker, and the other characters' motivations for going to Tanaroa
were mostly-elucidated: Lady Dolores Wrinklequim was meeting her husband
and son, who ran most of the goods-imported-from-the-Imperial-heartland
trade and did some exporting of raw materials, though not, particularly,
coffee. Elijah Goldberg (who had been wearing extremely expensive
clothes trimmed in fine fur throughout this whole adventure) was a
magnate in the garment trade and was buying exotic furs and (especially)
skins from the island's renowned enormous lizards. It was never clear
what, exactly, Edward Moleblanket did, but it sure seemed to be
something like being a riverboat gambler separating rich ladies from
their jewelery, and the zeppelin routes were a magnificent venue for
him. Miss Adipose was a drug tourist, seeking new thrills near their

At this point Rig had to leave, so BC played his character for the
little remaining adventuring we did.

In the colony in Tanaroa, the characters were quick to establish who the
local mercantile players were, and to get some information about the
interior and the natives (mostly human, especially in the seven villages
around Tanaroa, but also cat-men named rakasta, and some sort of
monkey-men, both farther inland). That night, they went to bed in the
inn down in the goblin colony (a few streets near a wharf built for
ocean-going ships, several hundred yards down the hill from the native
settlement). I asked the players to roll a d20, and not to roll a 1 if
they wanted a quiet night.

They rolled a 1. An enraged Tyrannosaurus Rex, wounded, with spears
sticking out of it, was lumbering down the hill from the village. Ber
used her d30 roll and hit it in the eye for 18 points of damage.
Blinded and very badly wounded, the lizard turned to flee, and the
colonists began buying the party lots of free booze--but all was not
well. Ber had to make a Corruption check of 5 this time--and rolled a
2. Fortunately the 78 on Scrap's Mutation Table yielded only an
enlarged chest--double lung capacity and a +2 to damage with blow guns.
This complemented her white fur, spines, baboon arms and different voice
every day, and as she said, tended to confirm her theory that she was
becoming an actual bear.

The next morning, our heroes spoke to Hugh Findlechot, the burgomeister,
who sold them a map of the (coast of the) island, and to Phoebe
Bardridge, Customs Director. She allows as how several enterprising
goblins have set out to create coffee plantations in recent month, and
names three who have actually sent multiple shipments of beans back
rather than vanishing into the wilderness, never to be heard from again.
Her guard, Aku, a native, offers the name "Skiwa" as a reliable guide
from the village, and says that they should talk to Allak, the village
chief. So they head up there, and as Ber is a hero today among the
natives (they pass a lot of destruction and, at the center of town, find
the T-Rex's severed head; the village is mostly engaged in rebuilding
the giant wooden doors that serve as the gate in their immense stone
wall, which Allak explains was built by the long-gone gods, as were the
stone and iron statues of people who look human, but neither with the
South Seas Islander looks of the villagers, nor the Germanic features of
Vornheim, but more like Native Americans). Allak is happy to lend Skiwa
to the party as a guide as far as the Big Tar Lake, and to give them
protective amulets, one from each clan (Elk, Hawk, Sea Turtle, Tiger).
They spend some time getting more tropically-appropriate gear and
getting ready to head out into the jungle next session. And that's
where we stopped. Next time: Coffee Plantations On The Isle of Dread.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2013-11-08 05:45 pm

Fiasco Playset: Elsinore -- Hamlet Has Three Daddies


An Actual Play Report of the "Elsinore" playset by Adam Thornton and
William Shakespeare.

The relationships we had to start with were:

a) Family: senile dad and hottie teen, paired with Location, Intimate:
In The Very Next Stall
b) Work: High-ranking politicians of opposing factions, paired with
Object, Documentary: Terms of Surrender
c) The Past: Former Spouses, paired with Location, Remote: Advancing
Army's Camp
d) Crime: Adulterer and Clueless Husband, paired with Need, To Get Free: of
suspicion, before they find out
e) Romance: Prince and MILFy Mom, Eww, paired with Need, To Get Respect:
from that hottie, by proving yourself.

This led to some...complications. You'll see. It eventually resolved
itself into.

Cast of Characters:
HAMLET, totally hot and vapid PRINCE OF DENMARK
FORTINBRAS (Sr.), still alive in this telling, KING OF NORWAY. And also
CLAUDIUS, KING OF DENMARK. Also, and here's where it gets weird, THINKS
pretty much like West Virginia.

ACT I, Scene I:

The action opens with an external shot onto a privy. There are two
closed doors, and behind each one is a set of boots, one red, one blue.
There's a little tapping, and a wide stance, and a slurping noise, and
an "Oooh, it's big and fat and juicy, just like I like it!"

And then a record-scratch noise. A much older voice says, "Oh shit! We
can't do this!" "Why not?" "Because, uh, well, er, I guess I might as
well tell you. I'm Fortinbras, the King of Norway." "Yeah, I know, I
watched you go into the privy." "Aaaaand....I'm also your father."

Scene II:

Fortinbras is in Elsinore on a diplomatic mission,
attempting to negotiate the terms of Denmark's surrender. He's talking
to Claudius, and points out that his army is only two days' march away.
He offers to make Hamlet scarce and protect him should Denmark come to
harm. He even reveals to Claudius that he's actually Hamlet's father.
Claudius is unhappy and determined to retain power.

Scene III:

Claudius is talking to his dead brother, and says that Hamlet isn't
either of theirs (Old Hamlet had kinda suspected he was Claudius's). He
suggests the Ghost go terrorize the Norwegian Army, which he does.

Scene IV:

Flashback: the murder of the Ghost by Claudius was all Gertrude's idea.
She's tormented by the belief that she turns all the men in her life

Scene V:

Gertrude catches Hamlet with Laertes. She determines to turn him
straight by any means necessary. He rejects her advances, and Gertrude
then poisons him with a slow-acting poison that will, in fact, kill
people who consume his semen more quickly than him. She plans to ransom
the antidote to him.


Scene I:

Fortinbras finds out that his army has fled in terror. He offers Hamlet
both thrones in exchange for taking care of Claudius.

Scene II:

The ghost attempts to frighten Fortinbras and fails miserably. He
settles for just annoyingly haunting him, standing behind him and making
snarky remarks, that sort of thing.

Scene III:

Claudius, feeling the tide shifting, solicits help from Gertrude, which
she promises. She lies.

Scene IV:

The Ghost tells Hamlet to get the hell out of Dodge while he still can.
Hamlet cockily waves him off.

Scene V:

Gertrude has finally managed to get some alone time with Fortinbras, but
he can't manage an erection, because the ghost is standing right behind
him, poking him, and asking what Fortinbras thinks of the ghost's wife.


Paranoia: Two people cross paths, and everything changes / Innocence:
Love Rears Its Ugly Head

Scene I:

Claudius, now that he knows Hamlet isn't actually his son, takes him as
a lover (two pairs of blue boots in the same privy stall, same shot as
the opening). Fortinbras, meanwhile, with the red boots in the next
stall, already slightly unhinged by the ghost's torment, begins to
spiral into madness.

Scene II:

Claudius has now been poisoned by the envenomed blade (as has Hamlet);
however, his long experience with Gertrude has enabled him to recognize
the danger. He and Hamlet will seek the antidote.

Scene III:

The Ghost, his differences with Claudius put aside for the moment, tells
him about a helpful apothecary.

Scene IV:

Gertrude is boning the apothecary when Claudius walks in the door. He
screams, "I've never stuck my sword in a woman, and I don't intend to
start now!" and stabs the apothecary to death, while Gertrude flees with
the antidote.

Scene V:

Gertrude reveals to Hamlet that she has the antidote, but that he's only
going to get it if he has sex with Ophelia. He grudgingly agrees.

Scene VI:

The now-thorougly-unhinged Fortinbras is in Gertrude's secret poison
cabinet. He's trashing the place, throwing bottles on the floor and
smashing them. POTION MISCIBILITY TABLE! Explosion! Clouds of caustic
smoke! Fortinbras is hideously disfigured by bubbling, sizzling
potions, and has become an unrecognizable monster.

Scene VII:

Hamlet has arranged Ophelia on the couch, facedown, and has asked her to
please put her hair up and try to talk in a deep voice. He is grimly
grinding away when Claudius enters; Claudius, in a rage, impales them
both with his sword.

Scene VIII:

The ghost appears in the wreckage and points out to Fortinbras that this
is all Gertrude's fault, every last bit, and he needs to kill her.

Scene IX:

Gertrude returns to her chambers; she opens the door, and the hideous
Fortinbras lurches from the smoke, drags her down, has his bestial way
with her, and snaps her neck.


The ragtag remnants of the Norwegian army reach Elsinore; they are
greated by the shambling Fortinbras flinging the gates wide. From his
perspective, we see them screaming and fleeing in terror across a
blackened, smoldering hellscape, where the only living things are the

We see a pile of corpses. Gertrude's is on the top. Fortinbras shoos
away the crows, reaches for her body, picks it up tenderly...and then
flings it to the side. He leans down again, pulls Hamlet's corpse's
trousers down, and leers.

Cut to the throne room. The hideous Fortinbras is brooding on his
throne. Behind him, the ghosts of Claudius and Old Hamlet are bickering
with each other like an old married couple, which they are, and
occasionally poking Fortinbras. The Ghost of Gertrude keeps walking
through them, trying to get their attention, and they are utterly
ignoring her.

athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2013-03-18 08:56 pm

GaryCon summary

I had another excellent time at GaryCon this year. Again I went up with Amy, Tracy Jo, and Jason-yclept-Rupert.

I started off with Skip Williams running 3.5E in "Into the Salt Mine," which got off to a slow start but then gained some momentum. That was the Thursday 10-2 slot, and it went kinda long, and then we went to dinner with a friend in Waukesha, so that was all I played Thursday except for a card game called "In A Pickle," which was OK but not great.

Thursday night I ended up in an awesome drinking/bull session with Victor Raymond, Tavis Allison, Nick ????, Mark Siefert, and Tracy Jo which went all over the map from kink/RPG community overlap to mythologies of D&D to notions of authenticity. Great stuff.

I was signed up for the continuation of the Skip Williams game, but Sean Kelley had signed up for it specifically to play with Skip and so there were not enough spaces for all four of us, so I took Tracy Jo's ticket and went to Ernie Gygax's 12-4 Old School Dungeon Crawl instead (I am far and away the least shy about playing with total strangers). That was quite a lot of fun too. Ernie was generous on character creation: 4d6, drop lowest, arrange to taste, and I rolled someone who could actually be a paladin, so paladin I was. I also ended up being the party mapper, which, while stressful, didn't explode, so yay. We had a lot of fun and had no fatalities, although I was down to 0 HP once and we had a couple other close calls. This one felt the most like the first session of a home game--we were all playing it cautiously and trying to make it out alive. A lot of good resource-management stuff, even though we missed some cool stuff on the map (just tried the other door, in a lot of instances). Of all the DMs I played with this weekend, Ernie's style is the closest to how I run my games, which was interesting to me.

Friday night I played in Alan Grohe's Castle Greyhawk in a high-level game to take an artifact of ancient evil (in a Bag Of Holding we were told not to open) to a demiplane to sequester it for all eternity. This I played with the Brothers Sloan, and Dex, and some of the other guys I'd played with at GaryCon in years past, so it felt a lot like getting the band back together. There was some excellent resource-management puzzle-solving in the game, and I got to feel clever (I was playing a fighter/mage). We had to handwave the last bit, though, because we simply ran out of time--we played the Castle very efficiently due to a Find The Path spell, but then took the long way around on the demiplane. I suspect this will have been my favorite game of the con.

Saturday noon was the Castle Greyhawk seminar which was interesting largely because of the tension of wanting to See What's In Gary's Binder versus But It Takes Play To Make It Live...which is of course basically the whole bluegrass-D&D-as-folk-art-slash-community-performance we talked about last year on the way back.

Saturday afternoon was Victor Raymond's Periplus of the Planes, a mid-to-high level plane-hopping EPT game, also a ton of fun. I played a Shen warrior whose actual desire was to be a restauranteur, and who was engaged in tracking down three pretty frightening items for N'yelmu, Master of the Garden of the Weeping Snows. We went to a Shunned One spaceship and Ekaronde, a town that was/was run by Ekaronde, a never-seen master who, I think, was an ancient AI of some kind. We did not have time to play out the City of the Red-Tiled Roofs. I won a copy of The Man Of Gold for my roleplaying in that one, so yay! (I'm about 20 pages in.)

I also bought a copy of Jon Peterson's book Playing At The World. This is obviously going to be the foundational text for the critical study of the history of RPGs. Seriously. Go buy it.

Saturday night was Jeff Talanian's Castle Zagyg (yes, I was going for a Castle Greyhawk theme this year). He handed out random characters and I ended up with an elf assassin with amazing stats. I caught a grenade lobbed at me and threw it back, and I got blinded by a giant copper cobra. Good times.

Sunday I lent an old PowerMac (6150, PPC 604-based, System 8.6) and an Apple //e to Victor, along with some serial cables and ADT Pro, so that he can rescue Professor Barker's diskettes to more archivable media. Then we had lunch with Victor and headed home.

Another great year.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2013-03-10 07:29 pm

S1, exactly what you think

Yeah, and, so, today I ran Tomb of Horrors for a different group than The Lost City. Prep time about an hour of rereading it (but there have been plenty of other immersions in it), runtime four hours with another session--maybe three hours--planned. Right now the party is in the mummy preparation room.

No one has died for good yet, although that may be because I was too soft with the use of neutralize poison. It's a fourth-level spell. Slow Poison is L2. Slow Poison says it can be used postmortem to bring a character back, so I ruled that Neutralize Poison can too. But maybe the idea was that you cast Slow Poison after death, and then you have to cast Neutralize Poison, but you need them both.

I guess I could ask Tim Kask at Gary Con.

But I'm playing with a set of players who are, in Nethack parlance, "thoroughly spoiled." My hypothesis is that better than 50% of the characters die anyway...but we haven't gotten to the really deadly parts of the module yet (and they somehow mysteriously knew better than to try some of the really deadly or drastically inconveniencing wrong turns available).

It's not as much fun as The Lost City was. Amy says, and I think she's right, that it's because there's no real resource squeeze yet. There are plenty of characters, plenty of opportunities to rest, plenty of ropes and grappling hooks and spikes and so forth. Maybe that will change as the module moves into the home stretch in two weeks.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2013-03-09 07:01 pm

The Lost City, an after-school special

B3, The Lost City, went down like a demented after-school special. The players encountered the Gormites, or Jocks, first, and got the basic story of the factions plus the Priests of Zargon (who are goths; I don't think they are well described in the module, so I gave the high priests Zargon masks and underpriests death's-head masks). Then, in between the fighting-the-lizards-and-beetles-and-other-dungeon-trash-monsters on levels 2 and 3 of the pyramids, the party went to the Madaruans (cheerleaders) and the Usmigarians (nerds) and did the whole "give them the idea of cooperating to ambush the priests of Zargon but make them think it was their idea the whole time" thing.

So there was much note-passing (literally) using the party as intermediaries, and a cunning plan, and the DM realizing that in the module as written that either he'd done a shitty job of understanding the layout or returning to the city for reinforcements and supplies, as the factions apparently do, takes you through some really dangerous areas on Level 5 so what's up with that?

Anyway there was that and a well-laid ambush and everyone learned the value of working together except the Priests of Zargon and their guards on account of them being dead, and it was so after-school-special that everyone wanted to hurl. A good time was had by all.

Although we're playing Swords and Wizardry Whitebox, we used some mechanics stolen from DCC. Ber, our elf wizard with more moxie than sense (she started the session covered in white fur, with a different voice every day, and with breath that hangs in the air as smoky runes of the last words of whatever sentence she said), did her usual thing of continuing to cast magic missiles as her failure die crept up and up and up. Finally she failed, and as she's a devotee of The Lady Of The Flowers, well, she lost 2 HP and 2 Charisma as three-inch thorns sprouted from pretty much all of her skin, in what was, I thought, a pretty awesome Patron Corruption event. There was a crit in the final battle when Nas Foullurker, the goblin thief, fired his blunderbuss (looted from Tegel Manor) at the Big Bad, rolled a 20, and the guy missed his save and passed out from the pain, making the ambush a lot less dangerous for the good guys than it was supposed to be.

Also, it turns out that Ber is totally metal. She took out a stirge execution-style: it was sucked on to her and she put her hand on it and Magic Missiled it point-blank, and then it turns out that when she was slitting the throats of the Slept opponents, she was doing it with her thorns.

B3 ties into the larger Vornheim/Gaxen Kane campaign world in that Zorlac the Librarian has sent the party to learn more about the League of Tumultuous Erudition (yes, stolen from the Elric! supplement Melniboné, and he's heard that the Usamigarans have contacts with them.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2012-11-13 10:03 pm
Entry tags:

D&D Endgame: we've been doing it wrong

So, this came out of a discussion on Google+.

Long story short, there's the Traditional D&D Endgame: you reach name level, you build a keep, you pacify the surrounding wilderness, and you retire to enjoy the fruits of your labors. This is in keeping with D&D as a metaphor for the Christianization of Europe, which may well be how Gygax saw it.


First, I don't think that's the way the endgame goes down in actual play, and second, that's not the way the story ends in the myth that D&D actually is, which is, I think, a little different.

I hope we can mostly agree that D&D is an American myth. It's the American myth, in fact, which is the Western, and which kinda resembles the Christianization of Europe in some ways: it's about carving order and domesticity out of the howling wilderness, about taming the frontier. So far, so Gygax.

But after he's made the town safe again, the Man With No Name doesn't settle down there and plant a garden and get married and get old and die. Oh no. Instead, he leaves again; in fact, he's driven out, because there's no role for him in the society he has created.

This gets right at the heart of the core paradox of American self-identity: we have this myth of the rugged frontiersman individualist. And that's great, but it's no way to run a civil society, so the society comes with its own baked-in distrust of itself right in its founding myth.

Now, there's a high-falutin' phrasing for how the D&D endgame really goes down, which is just striking out for ever-more-distant horizons:

"The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die."

Tennyson's very pretty, But "Ulysses" isn't all that appropriate for a quintessentially American myth.

So, I think the best phrasing for the D&D endgame is, well, of course it's found right where it would have to be:

"But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before."
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2012-09-10 11:02 pm
Entry tags:

DCC Dryad

So, we just played the followup to The Tower Under The Stars. Here's my take on the Dryad:

Dryad: Init +0; Atk Tentacles +2 melee (1d4 + grab), Digest auto (1), Charm (DC 12). AC 19 (trunk exterior), 10 (dryad-fruit), 8 (interior). HP: 5 per tentacle, 20 (fruit), HD 15d8 trunk (must kill trunk to kill creature). MV 0, Action 1d20, SV Fort +6, Ref n/a, Will n/a. AL N.

The Dryad is basically a giant pitcher plant. It's about 70 feet high; the trunk is 20 feet in diameter. Branches start about 20 feet up. In form it resembles a very fat weeping willow with a platform of broad, flat leaves atop it. On top of those leaves is what appears to be (from a distance) a beautiful, naked woman. When the tree hears/feels large creatures approaching, it dangles the woman atop the leaves and makes her dance. Viewers must make a DC12 save or be charmed; if charmed, they are compelled to get to the woman.

The woman-thing is actually bait-fruit. It is kind of mushy on the inside, about like a mango, and smells of orange flowers and cloves. It probably tastes awesome.

The willow-frond-like appendages hang down in a ring about ten feet outside the trunk; they can grasp anything from five to fifteen feet from the trunk. There are hundreds of these tentacles, but only one will attack a creature at any one time. If a creature is grabbed by a tentacle, it does 1d4 damage initially, and then the creature must make a contested strength check against the tentacle's strength of 17 (+2) to avoid being grabbed. A grabbed creature takes no further damage, but is lifted thirty feet into the air after one round (standard falling damage applies). After two rounds the creature is over the leafy platform (no damage, but see below); after three rounds it is partially lowered into the dryad's digestive cavity. On the fourth round the dryad drops the creature into the cavity, causing 1d6 of falling damage, and see below for digestion damage.

The base of the tree is ringed by six large knotty sphincter-like openings. Anyone really determined can push a hand, spear, or whatever into one. See below for digestion damage. There is a notable smell of vinegar around the base of the trunk (this is actually digestive acid), and a conscientious search will turn up 1d6 gold pieces, as well as small bone fragments, outside the sphincters. The trunk is easily climbed (DC 5), as it is very knobby and burled. It takes four rounds to get to the lowest branches, and from there only two more rounds to get to the platform.

Once on the platform, anyone who approaches the woman will trigger the big, flat leaves to collapse inwards. Anyone on the leaves must make a DC14 reflex save, or fall into the digestive pit, taking 2d6 damage (plus digestion damage below). Once the pit has collapsed, the bait-fruit will be pulled upwards, and the charm DC is reduced by two. If the fruit takes damage, anyone who sees it happen will realize that there can be no bones or organs inside the "woman", and rather than spurting red blood, she oozes green sap; that is good for another two points of charm DC reduction.

Anyone in the pit takes one point of damage from the digestive acid per round. However, the acid will eat armor first; it reduces armor protection by one point per round, and only when the armor is no longer protective does the acid begin to eat the character. A character can cut his way through the side with a piercing or slashing weapon; it takes 25 points of damage to cut a hole large enough for a human, dwarf, or elf to squeeze through; 15 for a halfling.

If the creature is killed and cut down, or if it is somehow persuaded to void the contents of its digestive pit (perhaps through a timely Acid Cloud spell), a further 2d12 gold pieces will be found in the (acidic) sludge. Anything that is not gold or glass is dissolved over time; every few weeks, the tree will spit out a mass of (white, polished) bone shards.

For a more challenging encounter, allow the tree to move 5' per round, and give it a +2 2d10 Root Stomp. Its Reflex save, if it's mobile, becomes -4 rather than automatic failure.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2012-05-27 12:05 pm
Entry tags:

More notes on Metal and Monsters

Humanoid races basically per _Savage Species_.

Very little healing magic other than Liquid Courage. There will be intoxication tables, random vomit tables, and vomit miscibility tables.

I have not decided whether you have to roll what kind of drunk you are at character creation time or whether that will be decided at drinking time. The former seems more realistic, but realism is not a primary goal, and not knowing whether you're going to be a funny drunk (+2 CHA, -2 DEX, -2 INT), a maudlin drunk (-3 initiative, prone to fits of weeping, -2 INT, -2 DEX, +1 WIS, -1 CHA) or a fighty drunk (-4 INT, -4 WIS, -2 DEX, -4 CHA, +3 CON, +3 STR) might be fun.

Studded Leather protects as chainmail + shield. Why? Because it's metal, that's why.

Spellcasting will be enhanced if you can name a specific (metal) song that evokes what you want your spell to do. Even more enhanced if you have it on your iPod and we can play it while you cast it.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2012-05-27 11:32 am
Entry tags:

Monsters and Metal

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)
2012-04-03 09:06 pm
Entry tags:

RPGs and Bluegrass

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)
2012-01-21 11:22 pm
Entry tags:

Gaxen Kane Update

Today we played a bit more in the ongoing Vornheim S&W game. Today started again in Gaxen Kane with the party still trying to locate a presentation copy of Anatomy of the Goblin Races.

This led them to the National Archives where their letter of introduction got them to an appropriate archivist who let them know that four of the twelve copies were in state collections (one of which was there, and which they viewed). He then told them that the copy owned by the dissolute heir to the Barony of Chalk was likely to be the easiest to get, as Harry, the baron, was a dissolute rake who would have no idea of the book's value (500-5000 gp, depending on condition), and that the archivist would much rather see it in a collector's hands, albeit in Vornheim, rather than moldering away neglected in the library of a never-visited country house.

The party went off to the noble's townhouse, arriving just as a wiry little goblin fished a ring out of the cesspool and presented it to him. This turned out to be Nas Foullurker, a professional mudlark, played by our out-of-town-but-we-hope-recurrent-guest player. Anyhow, the drunken Harry told some barely-coherent story about his librarian being eaten and that the party was welcome to the book if they dealt with his little infestation.

His butler, Albert, provided the party with three sealed letters explaining their presence, a spider-drawn coach to the manor, and a brace of duelling pistols.

The manor, upon arrival, turned out to be Tegel Manor (and I appear to be running it from a not-yet-documented second-and-a-half printing, where the Booty List goes to 35 rather than 30 or 37; I will scan this for the Acaeum soon). The party went for a circumambulation first, and had a shouted conversation through the Hermitage door with Rabury the Recluse ("Go Away!") that led to their learning that there were two libraries on the premises, one in the east wing, one in the southwest wing, each on the second floor, each at the south end of the wing.

Nas attempted to climb the southeast tower; near the top he disturbed the bats and quickly lost three of his four hit points, before Ber tossed a Light spell on him, which dispersed the bats. He entered the level with the silver bell through the window, started to climb up, heard "witches" hoping he was going to go up and provide them with a meal, headed down (the inhabitants of the room with the chest deciding to leave him alone for a bit because he was glowing), opened the next trapdoor, triggered the Symbol Of Fear, and hightailed it out the window and back down.

After some healing, it was determined that the southwestern wing looked the most hospitable.

The DM's failure to read the map allowed the secret door into the wing to be found too easily, and then there was a little skulking, a fight with a giant frog (this was the one nerfing concession I made: 1d6 rather than 1d10 bite damage, and a 6 would mean swallowed whole, 1d4/rd), and a discovery of the armory (and a case with four blunderbusses, one of which Palalladin took).

Then they realized that the chimney from the Butler's Room would take them up close to the library. They emerged in the Seance Room, gave both the cards and the ball a wide berth, and discovered the wight behind the curtain. They got lucky fighting it (although I did use 3E-like damage resistance of 5 rather than just cannot hit with non-magic weapons), and it didn't drain any levels.

A bit more reconnoitering and they came into the Maid's Quarters, where the werewolf Lucy was knitting and watching her four children play. They gave her a sealed letter; she examined the seal, agreed that it looked legit, and waved them through into the library, warning them that Wally hadn't been himself lately.

True enough, Wally's having been swallowed by a giant frog (he survived, evidently) hadn't done his stability any good, but he accepted the seal as genuine, and provided them the book they wre looking for. When the party apprised him of Harry's plans to auction off manor contents to pay his debts and suggested that he tell them of small but valuable items that Harry could use to forestall a wholesale rummage sale, he pointed out that the crystal ball (which he called "she") and the cards were both very valuable. The party, treating them like plutonium, grabbed them and tied them up without looking at them and hightailed it back to town.

All in all, near-perfect reconnaisance mission by the party. I didn't want to TPK them, so Tegel Manor's inhabitants were open to negotiation, but mostly they want to be left alone, and it's in everyone's interest that Harry raise some money without much disruption. I gotta say, Tegel Manor is so old-school that after the session I had to pass around the module to show that yes, there really is a Deck Of Many Things guarded by a 3HD monster. That's gonna be worth some coin and some XP when they unoad it.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2011-12-20 09:34 pm
Entry tags:

Secret Santicore 2011

I took the opportunity of Secret Santicore to teach myself some Javascript.

First I took my table and implemented it as a Web 1.0 CGI script in Perl; then I ported that to Javascript.

The Javascript version is at and the CGI version is linked from there.

The request was "Spells for door traps, the more obscure the better," so what I did was take the list of spells in Unearthed Arcana and select all the ones I could think of plausible door traps for.

Then I created a choice function. Actually, I created three:

One is straight-up Gonzo: equal chance of any spell, any level, any class.

One is Location-Independent: I assigned a weight to the class choice (15% Cleric, 5% Druid, 70% Magic-User, 10% Illusionist), and then a weight to each spell level (the top-level spell got one slot, the second-from-the-top two, and so on, until you get to the bottom of the list). Then within a class/level the choice is equally-weighted.

The third is Depth-Based. Basically, I rolled a d20 for the Level Of Characters That Should Be Exploring Here, and picked the highest-level spell of the chosen class (same weighted function as in Location-Independent) that a character could cast. Then I applied 4DF to it (4d3-8), capped at top or bottom as needed, and then picked a random spell of that class/level. This sort of approximates 3E Challenge Ratings, really.

Then for each spell, you may need to know the level at which it is cast, so that's the minimum level required for the spell plus 1d6-1.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2011-12-04 12:49 pm
Entry tags:

Magic Corruption Rules

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)
2011-11-19 05:43 pm
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athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
2011-10-30 08:56 pm
Entry tags:

Vornheim, Part II

Players finally got to roll some dice this last session.

I did the old Incredible Shrinking Man thing: at the dinner party, they drank a shrinking potion and shrank down to about 3 inches high. Then there was a kind of weird feast where I was totally ripping off the Mouser-in-Lankhmar-Below bits of Swords In Lankhmar--and then a kitchen fire broke out and the servants ran off to deal with it, and the (shrunken) dinner party was beset by cateagles. These were immature cateagles, really just adolescent kittens. (Cateagles are exactly what they sound like; there are also pigwidgeons in my Vornheim.)

This was intended to be an insurmountable challenge. However, I had established, before they showed up, a little something about magic in this world. We've already decided that black magic--which is to say, traditional MU-stuff (Clerical magic is white) (yes, also cribbed from Lankhmar)--is all done by means of demon-pacts. Well, turns out that demons don't scale (the actual demon at the party, K'k'krallak of the Seventeenth Hell, was unaffected by the potion). So when Ber cast a drying cantrip after spilling her drop of wine all over herself, she was a little surprised when a demon nearly as big as she was showed up, and ate a little of her soul (mechanically, she failed a save vs. magic, and lost a point from a randomly-determined characteristic; in this case, constitution).

But, even knowing that, when the cateagles showed up, she cast Magic Missile. This cost her 4(!!) points of Dexterity when she blew her save (at 1/25th scale, 1d6 per spell level to a random characteristic), but she used a d30 roll on damage. Now, at normal scale, the cateagles each had one hit point. The missile (revealed as a red spiny demon with an unwholesome leer) did nine points of damage, reducing the first (of three) cateagles to a fine red paste. Spark followed suit, but did not use the d30. Three points of damage had the same game effect (well, slightly chunkier red paste), except she made her save and lost no characteristic points.

Then we had a fun battle with the smilodon-sized cateagle (which, at little-tiny scale, had 37 HP--it was an 8HD monster). Palalladin realized that fishbones made fine spears, and with some help from the other partygoers (mainly the 9' (or, er, 4-1/2 inch) goblin ambassador, Uriah Thorpwhistle), did some damage to the cateagle. It still should have been too much monster for them, which would have led to Part Two of my cunning plan.

I had that all set up: Lady Görbler enlisted help to knock over one of the spare potion vials, and drank more potion, encouraging everyone else to as well, so they would shrink to be so small the cateagle wouldn't notice them anymore. However, Ber, using a fishbone spear, tipped with shrinking potion, rolled a critical hit on the cateagle and jabbed it in the mouth, delivering the potion to *it*. Whereupon Balin punched it (now kitten-sized) to death.

This was a bit disappointing, as there was going to be an Incredible Shrinking Man battle with a spider at double-shrunk size, but oh well.

It may be a cheesy old cliche, but "shrink the party and then have a battle with small creatures made large and fearsome" was really quite fun, in practice.

The party has also earned the gratitude of Uriah Thorpwhistle and Alice Gradgrind, two of the goblin ambassadorial contingent, and will be accompanying the diplomatic pouch on its journey in our next session. They've found out a bit about goblin economy and trade. My job will be to map Dickensian London onto an inverted-wedding-cake three-dimensional space, and then populate it with GURPS: Goblins (read, Dickensian) characters and plots.

I tried to make them take on the Dark Elf bereaved girlfriend of one of the devoured partygoers, 'cause they need some more muscle, as a hireling. She's all Pam Grier Bad Girl (and yes, Yzonde was dating her just to piss off his parents). The party wasn't having any. At least they did buy a dog (an Avellinish Hound named Edna, from Zak's wonderful random dog table). I hope that it is a quarter the faithful protector that dear departed Gleichmann was. Because no one has more than five hit points, except the dog. She has six.