athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
Three Dreamlands: The Sense of the Sleight-Of-Hand Man by Dennis
Detwiler, Dreamhounds of Paris and The Book of Ants by Robin D. Laws
with Ken Hite and Steve Dempsey, and A Red & Pleasant Land by Zak S.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The closest I can come to a summary is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanoid races are encouraged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5: Greater Heroism
Mind Fog
Song of Discord
Mass Suggestion

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

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

0: Flare
Dancing Lights

1: Disguise Self
Tasha's Uncontrollable Hideous Laughter

2: Glitterdust

3: Daylight
Major Image

4: Rainbow Pattern
Phantasmal Killer

5: Dream
Mirage Arcana

6: Permanent Image

0: Mage Hand
Mending (r)

1: Cause Fear
True Strike

2: Chill Touch
Ray of Enfeeblement

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

4: Bestow Curse

5: Cloudkill

6: Wall of Metal
Flesh to Stone

0: Putrefy food/drink
Inflict Minor Wounds

1: Doom
Death Watch

2: Ghoul Touch
Death Knell

3: Contagion

4: Poison
Animate Dead

5: Symbol of Pain
Insect Plague

6: Circle of Death

0: Resistance

1: Expeditious Retreat
Entropic Shield

2: Spider Climb
Touch of Idiocy

3: Fly

4: Shout
Evard's Black Tentacles

5: Teleport
Dispel not-very-metal

6: Wind Walk

0: Ray of Frost
Acid Splash

1: Magic Fucking Missle
Burning Hands

2: False Life
Melf's Acid Arrow

3: Fireball
Lightning Bolt

4: Wall of Fire
Enlarge Person, Mass

5: Cone of Cold
Transmute Rock to Mud

6: Chain Lightning
Flame Strike
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
I 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)
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.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
Well, it's happened. I can rightly be accused of corrupting the morals of the young, just like Socrates.

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

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

So that game:

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

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

But beyond that....

So, let's see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It appears that we are not actually playing D&D (or even S&W). Rather, we are playing _GURPS: Goblins_ with a variant ruleset.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
Yesterday was my turn to plan a training for Gateway Search Dogs, a group to which I belong. It's a bunch of people who train their dogs to find lost people. We're available for callout by local, state, or federal authorities; a lot of smaller police and fire departments don't have the resources to have their own search dogs, and they believe (quite probably rightly) that their money is better spent on equipment and training that's more generally applicable. So that's where we come in.

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

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

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

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

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

But I fooled 'em.

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

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

But what had happened then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, the weird thing is that this was almost exactly like Game Mastering. Thus: D&D is good for public safety. You heard it here first. It was also very gratifying to hear actual fear in Kathy's voice: it apparently looked plausibly like a meth lab, and it wasn't until I 'fessed up that she and Janet knew it wasn't real.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
So The Internets are all a-flutter with NERD RAGE because the Commonwealth of Virginia has banned D&D from prison.

Ostensibly because it mimics gang structure, with the DM as gang leader.

Well, obviously, the second half of that sentence is ridiculous. But the overall idea? I'm not so sure.

Is anyone going to claim that the Fundamental Narrative of D&D is anything but: a group of people go breaking and entering. Once inside, they divest the occupants of their possessions, usually by means of extreme violence?

And as for the gang structure, who here has a problem putting D&D classes on "Tank" and "Tiny" the muscle, "Fingers" the second-story man, "Face" the confidence man, "Doc" the medic, and "Crazy Eddie" the demolitions expert?


Dec. 31st, 2010 02:23 pm
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
This one requires a little back-story.

About a year and a half ago, on the last travelling gig I did at my old job, I worked with a colleague a little older than I am, who, like me, had been playing RPGs for a long time. However, in recent years he's mostly moved on to other interests, and he mentioned that he had a box of stuff he would never look at again, most likely, and offered it to me if I wanted it.

I said that'd be great. And then we both mostly forgot about it.

Except that then I got home after visiting my parents this Christmas and there was a big box waiting for me.

For the most part, this box contains what you'd expect it to: a bunch of pretty interesting stuff, some of it semi-valuable. For the most part.

There's one item in it,'ll see it later. Anyway, I have offered to give it back, because, while we're certainly friendly, I don't know that this guy really meant to send me a Holy Grail.

So, here's what was in the box.

First: some 1st-3d ed. D&D books and 3d-ed modules:

A whole bunch of Polyhedron magazines:

Some other magazines:

Murphy's Rules:

A couple of really obscure items. If anyone knows anything about "The Finding Of Morillion" please tell me about it. "You Bet Your Life" is a tournament module from Michicon VIII.

Some classic Judges' Guild stuff; the first edition of the First Fantasy Campaign is pretty valuable:

A closer look at one of the items; third and fourth editions of this are cheap and common, but the "Collectors Edition" first JG edition, I haven't been able to find pricing for:

A copy of Chainmail, Third Edition, Fourth printing. Not particularly rare, but kinda cool:

And then there's the last item.

The one that I am honor-bound to return if the donor wants it back. 'Cause I really don't believe he knew what he was giving me. (EDIT: I do get to keep it!)

Because....well, really.

This was not one of the ones in the Acaeum's registry (I have since sent them a scan). I don't know why Jim Ward, who had nothing to do with this product, signed the cover (except, probably, that it was what the original owner had on him for Jim to sign at Origins 79). (EDIT: Jim Ward ran it for the man who sent it to me, so that's why he signed it. That must've been something.)

But yeah. Try to imagine the shock I felt when excavating that box and Lost Tamoachan appeared.


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to me.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)

Cthulhu and the beholder are creations of my friend Tracy Jo Barnwell. The Flail Snail is a Victorian spoonwarmer augmented with pipe cleaners, toothpicks, styrofoam balls, and silver paint.
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
Magic Missile is overpowered. Which means I need to start doing more random encounter checks during the night. Our party tends to gun down monsters with MM and then spike the doors and sleep. Now, to some degree this is self-correcting, as the monsters will quite literally respawn in the Flesh Vats, but that's a pretty slow process.

Last session: the party killed Carlotta again and burned her apartments down--included a hilarious critical failure with a stake made from a crossbow bolt and Abbot Yorick's, um, mutilated corpse (to be fair to my players, we had established that Yorick and Carlotta had been lovers, so this wasn't entirely UNMOTIVATED barbarism) . The Assassin Vine was good and shocking to them. Then they waded slowly through the five Wight Barrows and rather cleverly zipped around the Dark Knight using Yorick's flying carpet. They're about to take on the Shadows.

Also, Amy remembered to use the Big Purple d30 for each of her mages, making MM even worse.


Sep. 25th, 2009 10:32 pm
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
I just ranted this on an OD&D blog page, but I figured I'd put it here because it was a pretty decent rant.

The question was "what animal do you associate with dwarves?" My initial reaction was "dragon" but a lot of other people picked "badger."

Which led me to:

Although there was that 3E or 3.5E supplement (was it Manual of the Planes?) that had the race produced by the coupling of, uh, dwarves and celestial badgers.

No, I'm not making this up. I'm going to go look right now.

All right, here it is. It's the Planar Handbook:

"Some instead mingle with the beasts they will one day become, creating new races that are perpetually half-animal, half-humanoid. Prominent among these are the wildren, beings descended from the union of partially transformed dwarf petitioners and celestial badgers."

Yeah, you heard it from Wizards of the Coast first: if you're a really good dwarf, then after you die, you get to fuck a badger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh, hi?

May. 20th, 2009 09:22 pm
athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
I'm new to the whole blogging thing.

This seemed like a good place to post my own Grognardly stuff. This is basically 0E-clone D&D-clone pen-and-paper roleplaying. Currently my group is playing a somewhat-houseruled Microlite74 ( We're running through a megadungeon of my own design, and I thought I would post some of the stuff about the game here: the houserules, the tool to make TSR-Blue style maps (which is nasty code but produces nifty maps), maybe some of the levels, and some design notes about them.


athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)

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