Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Inverted Ziggurat

(Follow up on the dungeon hinted at in the Mangrove post. This is meant as a sketch of the broad concept, not a keyed dungeon.)

The crazed ecologists who study the Flowing Forest have long posited that at the center of it must be some great mystery. Its well recorded that the forest will "swim" against prevailing currents and winds, and it takes a proper monsoon to alter its path. Theories gain and loose favor, but a few have remained popular:
  • Its on the back of a truly massive crab, crawling slowly on the shallow ocean floor, maybe hoping to scrape off the forest on an island
  • At the center is a slumbering Spirit of life, restlessly riding its vine-y cradle over the sea, making it wander as its dreams shift
  • Most of the mass of the forest is sub-aqueous and so the important variable is deep ocean current, which are poorly understood
None of these are the right theory of course. If you survive the journey to the center of the forest you will find a great terraced valley, its bottom is a few hundred feet bellow sea level. The terraces are paved with great stones and look more like ancient gardens than jungle, the root-filtered fresh water trickles slowly down to the bottom. At the bottom a great clear pool steams, and the very top of a structure can be seen...

The whole place feels like this, but in a few hundred years when a jungle is growing on it

The Terraces:

These where gardens. Remnants of greenhouses and fountains are every where, and amongst the lush ruins on the top terrace a few final warning/warding shrines from the local Automata tribes rest, invoking their most vile imagery.

Hazards on the terraces include: feral plants, decaying architecture, insta-rot fungi, leeches, half functioning gardener constructs that WILL POT YOU, large still pools of lily pads that probably aren't hiding water snakes in them, terraced edges to descent on vines, balloon plants that accumulate hydrogen and explode easily, and giant sloth breeding grounds.

But you may find: potions of grow plant, half functioning gardener constructs that you can manipulate, exotic and potent plants from all over the world. Indeed the gardens themselves are a treasure trove in themselves to a trained botanist, the diversity and rarity of the flora is enough to bring a life time of rich research.

The Ziggurat

At the bottom of the terraced valley is a large steaming pool of water, no plants grow near its edges but at its center is a large square structure. Through the startlingly clear water you can see that it is a many leveled ziggurat. The water is very hot, but not quite boiling and there is a sharp mineral odor to the mists coming off the pool. Upon investigation the water is not only hot, but caustic and will dissolve organic materials after a few moments of immersion.

Once the party figures a way across the pool (boat that wont dissolve, parachute with hydrogen balloon plants from higher terrace, cooling the water some how, divert the water from flowing into it till it all evaporates) the real dungeon can begin.

Some things you might find in the Zigguart

At its heart is a sun. The party will see glimpses of it occasionally through thick glass windows and deep water, giving eerie illumination. They will find hints of it else where: in rooms dedicated to its maintenance and control with panels of inscribed glyphs that hint at their utility, in the flooded chambers soaked in near boiling and caustic water that will start to make them sick with radiation poisoning after a few hours in the dungeon, in the strange slimes and fungi that seem to grow abundantly around these leaks, and the slow perversion of flesh they will experience through mutation.

Deep at the base of the ziggurat, far below sea level, they will find the Torch. If they are clever they might even figure out that the Torch is siphoning the massive heat generated by the sun to solder shut fissures and faults in the sea bed. Perhaps they will understand that this Sun-Engine is literally keeping the world together. To keep the Torch at a steady distance from the bottom of the sea the entire structure expands and contracts like an accordion. This introduces a crushing hazard as well as a changing dungeon layout that may shift every time the party returns to it.

The central command room is locked, the party will have to find a way to bust in or find the secret to unlocking it. There is heavy machinery all around, perhaps they can use it for demolition? Once inside they will have to solve some sort of puzzle to figure out how to manipulate the Sun-Engine. There will be illusions/holograms of the builders of the Ziggurat There are a few possible outcomes:
  • Meltdown: The Engine has been in slow motion melt down for a few centuries at least, and the party wittingly or unwittingly brings about a run away acceleration to this process. The delicate fields that suspend the sun will start to break down; the improvised fresh water coolant system was already malfunctioning, but now no new water is reaching the core and the containment walls are melting. Run! The world will likely tear itself apart without the Engine to keep it together and perhaps usher in a new Age...or the End of all Ages.
  • Fix It: Through careful experimentation or dumb luck the party may figure out how to fix it. They can find out that the outflow of coolant is leaking badly, that the vegetation surrounding the Ziggurat is gunking up the mechanisms. If they fix it the Sun-Engine will start operating at peak efficiency again, the Torch will actually make headway in keeping the world together instead of fighting a slowly loosing battle to decay, and the Flowing Forest will be shed as the Ziggurat once again rides just above the waves with water intake pipes trailing behind as in the Days of Old.
  • No change: Through caution or awareness of their hubris the party can walk away and allow the Sun-Engine to continue to meltdown slowly. It will eventually fail, but at least the world continue for a few hundred years more...

Thoughts on the Inverted Ziggurat

Its a metaphor for a nuclear reactor. Built by some anonymous precursor civilization and abondened long ago, then rediscovered and haphazardly repaired by a more recent society. The terraced valley and gardens where built by the second comers as a way to keep the Sun-Engine cooled but when they abandoned it the radiation allowed the Flowing Forest to take root on the Garden Terrace edge until that was all that people knew of it.

When considered with the rest of Ánemos setting this is the first demonstration that world is a few Ages past a technologically advanced civilization and implies that its a post apocalyptic world, or at least a world fallen into decay and forgetfulness where the glories of the past are misunderstood and clouded (like the implied setting in the wonderful Ghibli film Castle in the Sky). I like this. It adds a dimension and depth to an otherwise gonzo-Greek-fantasy setting. I love fantasy that is secretly sci-fi. I also love romantic fantasy (the type that +Joseph Manola writes about here, and he makes some great points on ruins here) where the characters have the chance to have a meaningful effect on the world.

In this dungeon they are presented with a machine that literally keeps the world together and the three outcomes all are meaningful. They can play with fire and get burned with the world at stake. They can fix an ancient construct and perhaps start an age of re-disovery and healing. Or they can make the decision to find a way to love a more and more broken and shattered world. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What they Sought in the Great Desert

If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.
-Edward Abbey, Desert Solitare

...And even when a road hazards its way over the desert, you will see it make a thousand detours to take its pleasure at the oases. Thus, led astray by the divagations of roads, as by other indulgent fictions, having in the course of our travels skirted so many well-watered lands, so many orchards, so many meadows, we have from the beginning of time embellished the picture of our prison. We have elected to believe that our planet was merciful and fruitful. But a cruel light has blazed, and our sight has been sharpened...
Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Mojave Desert, CA, source

1d10 Things You Might Find When Crossing the Great Desert

1: Heaven's Gate
They say that out in the rock and sand, where the sky curves under the great weight of the Heavens, on windy days the hangings that veil mortals eyes from the glory of Heaven brush and dance across the lonely sands. Patient pilgrims wander the high places sometimes meditating on the zenith of a mountain for a weeks at a time, hoping to see the parting of the veil and glimpse Paradise. They sigh with contentment, their souls soothed by the promise of glory, and they pick up and leave the desert better than they entered.

Other, less scrupulous seekers wait below. They wait for the drapery of Heaven to skim across their dunes, after them they gallop on black horses lean from hard years and water scarcity. The legends say that if you ride fast enough even the foulest of sinners can grab a hold and climb their way into the Heavens.

Or perhaps it was simply a passing Sky City built on a lump in the sky...

2: The Book of Dreams

It is well understood that in the Great Desert you can sometimes find the Book of Dreams. You'll see it when you sleep first, sitting on a desk behind your grammar school teacher or in your parent's basement that you have to clean. You might not even notice it those first few nights, but if you happen to be headed to the book in the material realm it will start to take more... noticeable... roles in your nightly ethereal wanderings. You may be crushed by it or fall off of it, you may be chasing it down endless corridors or trying to keep it from sinking in a lake of shell-less snails. You know, anxiety dream stuff.

The Book of Dreams is not trying to sell you stuff like a Dream Merchant, it wants you to find it in real life and read it.

Most stories say that you will find the book in the possession of a noble knight or wise priest, but usually its just a sleepy person. They generally will glad to be rid of it, others will fight you ferociously for a chance to glimpse its pages.

Everyone's experiance reading the Book is different: 1d6
1-3: It reads like someone else's dream journal, mildly interesting but mostly incoherent. Makes you drowsy
4: Get sucked into a nightmare! The Book is gone when you awake
5: Fall into a deep sleep and wake up knowing a new random spell. You can no longer read the Book, its just gibberish. Compelled to check the book often just in case you can read it again
6: Gain the ability to enter the Realm of Dreams, but only when you have the Book in your possesion

3: A Place to Find Yourself

Austere landscapes separate the wheat from the chaff. Long hours in the warm sun and under the bright stars can elevate the spirit and cleanse the body of evils. Sweat can cleanse, and a simple diet and quiet habits can expel disease and other maladies of the body and soul.

Some simply wander, looking for a modest water hole and some shade to heal and grow. For every year spent in the desert only doing quiet and contemplative actions (no adventuring, item creation, spell research, etc) you can get a re-roll on a single failed disease check, or you can use these rules for personal growth.

4: A Place to Loose Yourself

Not everyone finds solace in the hot sun and the cold stars. Life in the desert can bend the back and and break the will. As life becomes more desperate those that were once strong turn to stone licking and cannibalism for survival.

Perhaps they turn to ghouls that walk the dunes at night looking for travelers, and if you don;t keep close watch you may awake with gritty hands strong and desperate in their strangle hold around your sweet warm neck.

Worse yet a spirit of hunger and famine could be born in such despair, a wendigo could hunt in the dunes. This is especially common of the souls upon large failed expeditions where they lingered in starvation for months while they consumed their brothers.

5: Star Children, to Raise Them in the Light of the Lord

There is a high desert plateau, far from any watering hole where the caravans and tribes to not trek, upon which the stars fall. At their cores sleep giants made of molten glass who breath radiation and death. After cooling they begin to crack open their vessels and to behold this new world they have come to with mute horror or confusion.

Are they beings from another place, crashed on our planet out of desperation or long intent? Are they the stars themselves, sick of watching terrestrial affairs from far above? Are they fallen angles, cast out of the Heavens? Are they cast aside experiments from some higher being living on a moon?

Who knows!

All that matters is that the faithful find these dripping behemoths and make sure they are converted. Word of a Star Child fetch a fine fee at any pilgrims church on the outskirts of the desert, a living and walking one will provide you with favors from the Church, perhaps even an audience with a bishop... For what better examples of the ever-forgiving light of the Church than to tour the civilized world to demonstrate that anyone can be forgiven?

6: The Sands of Time

You can see the bent figures scouring the dunes in the heat of the day, mirages dancing about them while they remain sullen dark smudges. With noses bent nearly to the ground their many lenses flashing in the abundant light, they search. With delicate tools they pick up individual grains of sand upon which the focus their lenses. Their hauls hang at their belts in pitifully small sacks.

They are collecting Time.

Wretchedly small amounts of Time, but Time none the less. And when their sacks are full they leave the desert to sell their haul to the wizards who wish to make hourglasses.

Up close the Tardy Sifters, as they call themselves, are a sun burnt, bent over, leathery, squinty eyed, and slow moving bunch. They aren't great conversationalists, but they do have a wizard contact at the nearest oasis they could get you introduced to for some water skins and food. Or, if you are feeling a little more murderous, you could kill them and take their sack of Sand. What kind of Time is it? You'll have to inhale some and find out...

7: Meet the Devil and Know His Temptations
...and perhaps strike a deal.

On cold nights when there are no moons and the scavengers cackle just out side of you camp's dungfire light, the Devil dances across the sand and plays his xalam to the beasts of the night. Should the Devil spy your fire he will approach and with utmost courtesy ask to share in your hospitality and companionship.

If you refuse the Devil you must extinguish your fire and flee into the night, running from his tune until you cannot hear it. As you flee the Devil will haunt you until dawn or your death, inciting the creatures of the desert into a wild hunt. He will call your name and know you have defied him. If you brave the darkness and elude the Devil as dawn breaks he will forget your name and you will have defied him.

If you accept the Devil you must offer him food and drink, then regal him with song, verse or story. If he is pleased we will offer you a boon from his shoulder sack. If he is displeased he will offer you a boon from his hip pouch. Both contain wondrous things, both at the cost of your soul to be collected at your death or in a year and a day's time, respectively. Refusal is incredibly impolite.

8: A Wise Hermit
There are a lot of cooky people that live out in the Great Desert. Prophets and madmen are often driven for well watered lands, they find that their persecutors stop when the dunes and rocks begin. They might be siting atop a column. Or just hanging out. Or maybe they are all wizards?

I dunno, but one of them probably knows something you want to know, best to talk to them all.

9: Bones from Eons Past, Exposed by Wind From Cold Stars
Bones are pretty useful. You can use them to make stocks.  You can use them for fertilizer. You can use them for spooky decorations.

Or, if you have the inclination... and the time... and the finances to fund a multi-month expedition... and the required skills... and an evil intent... and tenacity, you can search the Great Desert for and excavate the bones of long dead terrors to tap their ancient power for your own benefit. If you are lucky, or just rich, you can obtain a complete skeleton to animate.

But that is terrible bad luck.

10: Simply Find an Oasis and Rest
The desert is a hard place to travel. The ground can be soft and make walking and pulling carts hard or be hard and make footing uneven and rough. The wind blows constantly with no vegetation to slow it, sandstorms range from irritating to deadly. The sun bears down intensely causing sunburns and dehydration and exhaustion, and when its not in the sky warmth flees from the desert for bitterly cold nights. Foraging and hunting all day may not yield even a mouthful of edible material and leave you tired and demoralized.

The Great Desert is not a place for the weak.

Oases are.

Star Child, source

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sangre y Polvo: Pre-American California Folk-horror Fantasy Hexcrawl

Some thoughts on a setting. A Western, but set in pre-U.S. California/Northern New Spain territories, a psuedo-historic supernatural setting in the mists of misinformation and superstition.

The year is 1794, the King of Spain has issued the forced deportation of Jesuit priests to be replaced by Franciscan and  Dominican monks. Most of California’s Missions are built, expeditions have been sent to explore the vast tracts of wilderness in northern New Spain, Californios begin to build their haciendas and ranchos, and dark things stir in the Wild that the Jesuit priests knew how to handle and the locals wait for the foreign occupiers to be wiped away by their hubris...

Key elements:
  • Wilderness travel and exploration
  • Spanish colonialism and administration, the Bourbon Reforms
  • Catholicism and the Mission system
  • Western tropes subverted to an earlier era
  • Native American folklore
  • Get to use awesome old maps
  • Could even flip the script and have it be secret that it's California until the players realize
  • Intermixing of old world superstitions in a strange new place
  • Slavery and genocide is ubiquitous across the Spanish territories
  • Arcane levels of administration and secrecy handed down from the remote Spanish crown
  • Murmurs of the new nation of the United States, a young republic to the east of the contient
  • Thick of the French Revolution, thoughts of colonial independence fomenting
  • Enlightenment ideas and texts to draw on

This post is one point with its tone. This one has some cool ideas on how to handle player advancement in the context of culturally arbitrated trials. Its basically this idea, but set earlier.

The party could be:

  • Members of the Spanish military on an expedition
  • Monks setting out to found the next Mission
  • Rancheros settling the new county
  • Natives protecting their land and way of life
  • Russian trappers looking to kill big animals to skin them
  • Agents of the French Monarchy, who haven't heard about the Revolution yet

There may be a lot of this, but with monsters

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Water Your Garden

Water Your Garden

As much as anyone subscribes to any philosophy in a mundane life, I try to live out the teachings of the stoics. One of the central concepts to stoicism is the acceptance of what you can and cannot control. In an age of over consumption of media and information, taking control of your inputs is an important step towards more gratifying, less stressful, and (perhaps) a richer life.

I'm in a place in my life where I drive a lot and most of the media I consume comes in the form of podcasts. I easily listen to 5 or 6 a work day. Originally I was going to write a comprehensive list of things I like, but I settled on just podcasts because I feel I have more authority to give a recommendation on them. I've avoided mentioning the trite and well known shows in favor of lending some spotlight to some more modest gems.

The format is as follows: Title, Host/Studio/Station: Brief description, and game-ability score (1-5)

99% Invisible, Roman Mars: A look at all things design and applying design based principles to real world problems. 1

Gastropod, Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley: Food through the lens of science and history, often with a specific food for each episode. 2

Heaven's Gate, Glenn Washington: Examination of American cult of the same name, lots of interviews with surviving members and hosted by a former cult member. 4

Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam: NPR's psychology podcast. Lots of great guests and examples of psychological principles in society. 1

Imaginary Worlds, Eric Molinsky: Multifaceted look at modern fiction and its interface with other parts of our culture. Has a lot of modern authors on. 4

LeVar Burton Reads, LeVar Burton: Short stories read by a classic reader. The stories vary in content, but all are pretty excellent. 3

Love and Radio, Nick van der Kolk: Raw stories told in a stream of consciousness format. These are all utterly captivating. 3

Mission to Zyxx, Audioboom: Improv comedy, in space! Its actually really very funny. 5

More Perfect, Radiolab: Deep looks into specific US Supreme Court cases. Not very gameable, but very well researched. 1

Myths and Legends, Jason Weiser: Stories researched, adapted, and retold. Some of which annoy me, but its part of keeping old stories alive. so thats cool. 3

Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Christopher Lydon: Sometimes really boring, sometimes wonderfully insightful interviews. His interviews about artists specifically are great. 1

The Allusionist, Helen Zaltzman: A hard look at language. 2

The Heart, Kaitlin Prest: Intimate stories about life and love. 1

The Memory Palace, Nate DiMeo: Vignettes about characters, places, or events from history. Lovingly crafted and brief. 4

The Sporkful, Dan Pashman: Food show centered on interviews with celebrity chefs/not chef celebrities. Actually really delightful. 1

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Voyage of the Void Seeker: The Set Up

The whole idea for this came from seeing this piece at a street fair in my town. I met the artist, got this piece, and hung it on my wall. Its been staring at me, asking to be used...

In a recent post condensing all of my Ánemos writing into one place I had a dense little mess of the going-ons in the Scattered Sea. There was mention of "the long-thought-lost Magi Trophonious the Fool has risen out of the depths on the back of a Kētos and is looking for a crew to sail with him to the bottom of the Abyss". This is that adventure hook explored, and incidentally my first adventure to be published on this blog!

You can get it here, on this blog, as I write it. When it is all done, I will compile everything into a PDF for easy download.

(I'm relatively new to this. There are some bad-ass writers out in the DIY/OSR blog-o-sphere that I admire greatly and get a lot of inspiration from (you can see their blogs on the right panel of this page). This adventure was written as my entry into the published adventures of the DIY RPG scene, but this is the effort of one person that is doubtless in need of editing. If you have comments and edits I'd love to read and incorporate them.)

Bon voyage!

Source unknown

The Set Up

The party is going to start in the City of Twins, Diopolis, the largest Island State in the Chalcis Chain, seat of the Chalcis Alliance of Protection (CAP).

The city spans two islands, Euboea and Boeotia. The story goes that the islands where once one, but the Goddess of the island had a mental break and two personailites and two islands formed, creating the Euripus Strait over which the longest bridge in the world spans. It is home to the Counsel of Magi and a number of famous wizards and enchanters, and one of the only places in Ánemos that the secret techniques of making Wyrships are known and practiced.

While not as militaristic as their main international competition the Republic of Minoa or the Comitia Tributa of Arsuf, Chalcis is full of her own dangers. Magi are cunning folk, and work in slow and subtle ways to ruin each other and turn the world to suit their needs. Intrigue lurks in the steamy halls of every bath and rumors rip through the City of Twins like the breath of a zephyr.

Trophonius arrived in the Euripus Strait that bisects City of Twins strapped to the back of a Ketos, a massive whale like creature. The Ketos has strange structures of seaglass and clamleather affixed to it, apparently enabling Trophonius to live comfortably upon the beast. The event has the city's rumor mills working triple time, its a nice diversion from the news of titanic horrors ravaging the outer reaches of Chalcis, but also worrying because most of the CAP's war bands are out on their Wyrships fighting the monsters.

Trophonius calls his "vessel" the Void Seeker, what nickname have the citizens of Euboea given it as it rests in the shallows waiting for its master's call?

1d10 Nicknames of the Void Seeker:
  1. Hubris
  2. Catharsis
  3. Thalia
  4. Apotheosis
  5. Exodus
  6. Moira
  7. Ananke
  8. Halcyon
  9. Abyssinia
  10. Gravitas
Trophonius has made it clear that he does not plan to stay in the city for long, just long enough to find himself a crew and stock the vessel for a long trip.  What does he tell people that his mission is?

1d6, Trophonius's Stated Goal:
  1. To find the source of the titanic sea monsters terrorizing Chalcis and destroy them if he can, looking especially for heroes and madmen
  2. Uncover and mine Orichalcum nodules at the bottom of the Sea, looking especially for deep water miners and alchemists
  3. He seeks to find the corpse of a long sunk vessel with a belly full of treasure, looking especially for scavengers and demolishonists
  4. Wants to find and pass through the Gates of the Underworld to be reunited with the soul of a dead lover from his youth, looking especially for grave robbers and those that speak with deamons
  5. To kill a god by severing their connection to wellspring of divinity, looking especially for blasphemers and the morally bankrupt
  6. To reach the Bottom, looking especially for companions and thrill seekers
In addition he is hiring: Sea grass gardeners, artisans (bronze smiths, cordells, leather workers, glass blowers), cartographers, navigators, biographers, musicians, cooks, cabin boys, harpooners, quartermaster, boatswain, surgeons, and a few swabs.

Those that knew Trophonius recall his many bad habits, addictions, and general uncannyness. What are his flaws?

1d10 Bad Habits:
  1. Chews with his mouth open
  2. Doesn't cover his mouth when he sneezes
  3. Has bad body odor/terrible breath
  4. Bites his nails
  5. Refuses to make eye contact
  6. Mummbles
  7. Poor posture
  8. Fiddling with his beard and hair
  9. Always humming to himself
  10. Picks his nose/ear wax
1d10 Addictions:
  1. Alcohol (wine)
  2. Opiates (opium)
  3. Salty Snacks (smoked sardines)
  4. Sweets (candied dates)
  5. Tea (green)
  6. Hallucinogens (sea slugs on the eyes)
  7. Gambling (dice)
  8. Stimulants (carrow root)
  9. Inhalants (smelling salts)
  10. Chewing gum (sap of the drakon blood tree)
1d10 Weird Detail:
  1. Continuously has teeth falling out, never runs out
  2. Tattoos that dance and flow on his skin
  3. Eyes never look in the same direction
  4. Hair and beard are made of sea weed, he keeps them wet
  5. Robes change from slate grey to azure to match the character of the Sea
  6. Weird Pet (1d4: giant hermit crab, several goofy seagulls, an animate pile of sand, a very old sheep)
  7.  Voice echoes no matter his soroundings
  8. Seems to always have the hiccups, though he will deny it
  9. He can't hear rhymes
  10. Poorly hidden gills

The movers and shakers in Diopolis don't believe a word Trophonius tells them, they are sure he is up to something more sinister. The party happens to be in right place at the right time, someone needs something done aboard the Void Seeker and they are asked to help. The following motivations can be for the whole party (especially easy if part of an ongoing game), or to make things interesting each party member could be given a motivation secretly as the game begins (easy if this is the first adventure a party is taking part in).

 1d10 Party Motivations:
  1. Spies of the Chalcis Alliance of Protection, defensive information and an assassination team if there is a threat to the region uncovered
  2. Lackeys of the Counsel of Magi, sabotage Trophonius' reputation and steal his arcane secrets
  3. Members of the Guild of Scalers, representing the Guild's trade interests in the virgin markets of the Deep Sea
  4. Agents of a society of theological scholars, learn more about the Mythic Underworld
  5. Hired by Trophonius from a mercenary company (1d3: Stellar's Jays, Stormking Mountain Battalion, Black Sails), hired muscle
  6. The party are Secret Merfolk, aboard to ensure the safety and secrecy of their underwater citadels
  7. Ascetics, seek yet uncontacted Spirits of the depths and ingratiate themselves with them
  8. Daemon Binders, CHAOS
  9. Vagabonds that lied their way in, murderhoboism
  10. Classic 20,000 Leugues Under the Sea start, hired to hunt a sea monster nearby and it turns out its the Void Seeker causing trouble. After sinking their ship Trophonius invites them in and the adventure begins...
And so, the crew is set, provisions are loaded, and the Void Seeker is bound for the depths!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Game Review: Dramasystem

So I saw this video on a Youtube channel I watch sometimes, LindyBeige. It popped up in my feed and I clicked on it because of the title:"The coming revolution in role-play games?". Lindy talks about the story game Hillfolk and gives a rather rousing review of it. I showed the video to my gaming group one night when a game was cancelled and we were all just hanging out and there was a lot of enthusiasm to try it out.

So I got it!

And we played it!

And here is my review, both of Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow, the companion book that further expands the Dramasystem that Hillfolk establishes. The Dramasystem is published by Pelgrane Press and primarily written by Robin D. Laws with many guest authors for the settings (see below).

Design Notes:

There are two nicely bound books, both around 200 pages each with full color full page illustrations. They are on par with the production quality of the old 3.5 D&D books (the last physical RPG books I bought...).

Most of the art is pitch perfect, while some of the other art falls utterly flat:

Good art (Hillfolk)

Off color art (Blood on the Snow)

The text is presented in the standard two column format that has a sometimes confusing mix of hint boxes that consolidate rules (in a way the text never does), dramatic quotes ("You again!" -> "I told you I'd be back, when you least expected it.") (that I suppose is the author's way of showing how he thinks the game should sound like?), and the main text.

I have been consistently frustrated with the organization of the book, and it seems that others have been as well because there are several rule consolidating pdfs that fit on a single page as reference to use during play. This is a great resource, but its frustrating that the texts themselves don't fulfill this purpose.

One of the highlights of both books is the "Additional Settings" sections that take up the last half of both books. They are written by guest authors and illustrated by guest illustrators so there is a tonal shift in the writing and the art midway through the book, but many of the ideas are gold.My players and I were very intrigued by the additional settings, so to give a glimps at what the published texts claim to be able to simulate play in, here are some examples:

  • Support group for mad scientists
  • Undercover CIA agents spying on Soviet Moscow 
  • Courtiers fighting over the realm of the Rabbit King (think Watership Down)
  • An ant colony fighting the war on two fronts against a rival colony and a zombifying funagl pathogen
  • Professional Wrestlers turned thugs for hire in 1980s Ohio
  • Augustan intellectuals dukeing it out in 1700s London
  • Hyper-capitalist robot drama in a post organic earth
  • Orcs squabbling for the Chieftainship
  • Ninjas
  • A ship lost voyaging in Dreamspace, looking for reality
  • Robodoctor medical drama
  • Dolphin eco-quest
  • Magicians secretly fighting in WWI
  • Recently dead ghosts hang out together
  • Teenaged battlemecha pilots from Japan and America are stationed at the same base
  • And many more!
Basically if you can imagine a TV drama you can play that. The settings section also gives some good fodder if you want to run another game system with the setting concept.

System Outline:

Lets briefly break down some of the mechanics for the uninitiated masses. This is not a table top RPG in the sense that D&D or Pathfinder or Warhammer are, this is Role Playing. There are no dice, your character doesn't level up and hardly has statistics, gold and treasure don't matter, and most of the game is represented by "scenes" between players.

It is in short a story game.

Character Creation:

Characters are created as a group in the first session of play. Every one sits down together and decides on a setting (in my groups case the canon Hillfolk setting, Iron Age Middle East) and then take turns make declarations about their own character and their relationships with other characters. For example:
  • Get named (Jaw Bone, Savy, Flint, etc)
  • Their roles in their tribe are determined (chieftain, medicine woman, lead scout, etc)
  • Relationships between characters are established (siblings, lovers, raid partners, etc)
  • Desires are declared (I want respect!), with a strong emphasis on desiring more abstract emotional goals than concrete ones
  • Dramatic poles are chosen (spirituality or carnality?) that show how the character wavers between their conflicting natures
  • State something they want from any other character, the other character in turn tells them exactly why they can't have it ("I want your approval father!" -> "You will never have it because I loved your mother and I blame you for her death" etc)
  • Choose their strengths and weaknesses by ranking the following "stats" (you get 2 strong, 3 middling, and 2 weak): Enduring, Fighting, Knowing, Making, Moving, Talking, Sneaking
Once this process is done you have a fully formed web of relationships that can be mined for dramatic narrative tensions. The youtube video I linked to above does a good job of walking you through this using the TV show Breaking Bad as an example of how these narrative tensions look in a story that we are familiar with. There are also cool relationship webs that look like this:

Pacing (Episode vs Scenes):

Each session, as most of us would call the thing where we sit down together for a few hours to play a game and then come back for another one next week, are instead called episodes. Each episode has a theme that is chosen first by the GM (game moderator) then by the a randomly chosen player at the end of the episode before. Themes are things like: Hunger, Change is Hard, What's In a Name?, Progress, etc. Themes should be brought up and built upon or highlighted through their absence. i.e. the chief isn't going hungry when everyone else is licking rocks which highlights the absence of Hunger.

Within an episode scenes are called. First by the episode caller, then by a randomly chosen precedence order that cycles back around once everyone has called a scene. A scene has: a cast of characters who are there (and even what they are doing, "Jaw Bone you are evesdropping, feel free to chime in when/if you see fit),  a setting (down in the training yard, out by the freshwater spring, in my hut, around the central fire, etc), a time (especially if this is much later/earlier than the previous scene), and a "mode" (whether this is to be a dramatic scene or a procedural scene). Often the character calling is designated as the "petitioner", the person going into the scene with something they want on their mind. The caller doesn't even have to be in the scene and can designate anyone the petitioner.

Any one of the above attributes of a scene can can challenged by anyone at the table. Don't want your character in the scene? Just say so and the caller can allow or try and stop you from "ducking the scene". Or if the caller is amenable to the alteration it just happens, This is true for most of the game, there is a lot of negotiation and consulting with everyone for narrative elements.

Dramatic vs Procedural Scenes and the Relationship Economy:

Once the scene is called the cast begins to engage with it. This kind of just looks like talking if the scene is a dramatic one, think of a Game of Thrones scene where two or three characters are just being snide to each other and threatening and bargaining. Scenes should only take a few minutes, and once they start getting too long other characters can call "end scene!" to speed things up. At the end of the scene the petitioner says whether or not they feel like they got what they want from the scene. If they didn't get what they wanted they are given a "Drama Token", if they did get what they wanted they give a Drama Token to the one that conceded to them.

When players are in a procedural scene they tend to be in conflict with each other or some abstract opponent (a cliff face, a rival tribe, a herd of wild hores, etc) that they want to win dominance over. So if a character is challenging the chief for rulership they would have a procedural fight. This involves a deck of cards and drawing to match a target card. Its a little complex and I won't get into it here.

The Drama Tokens are a way to reward flexibility with narrative influence. If you allow your character to give a dramatic consession you can later spend that token for something that matters to them. They can be used to force scenes to happen the way they want, advantage in procedural resolution, and other boons.

Play Test Report:

My group and I played 4 episodes in the stock standard Hillfolk setting. We had a cast of 6 players all playing a family closely related to the current chief of their tribe.

Character Creation:

This took a majority of the first session. We sat down and literally read out of the book step by step how to create characters and it actually worked surprisingly well. This is a central part of the game set up, as having a sufficiently complex web of desires and relationships is what drives the whole game and the system that is presented is a good way to create these relationships.


In all honesty, it was pretty fun! There is a sufficient amount of structure to provide snappy and interesting play, but plenty of room (mile and miles of room) for creative collaboritve improvisation.

The largest complaint my group had about the system was the procedural scene resolution. Its clunky and we had to re-read through the rules each time we had a procedural scene. I don't think we ever satisfactorily learned.

It was also difficult to play with more or fewer players at a session, you are really tied to the cast of characters that you begin play with and its very hard to incorporate new players into the webs of relationships. On the flip side of the same coin, if you don;t have the whole cast present much of the tenssion dissolves; I am sure I am not alone in having trouble getting the exact same group of people together weekly for several hours at a time and having play rely on that is a significant weakness.

In Summary: What You Should Steal

The real innovation of Dramasystem is the web of relationships, I want to use it everywhere. You could have a fast version of the character creation process when rolling up a new party for D&D. This sets up the adventure to be more than just a hack and slash rampage through a dungeon. Having everyone give predefined relationships with each other also meets one of my goals of having a community driven adventuring party. It would also be a useful system to define tensions at a larger scale by running through the process with the factions in a setting (the Bloobloods want the capitol city of the Annix Empire back as their holy city, but the Empire will never let them have it because they think the Bloobloods are a shattered and broken people...)

The dramatic scene system has use in carousing. The party gets back to town and tries to blow off some steam and maybe some tension boils over (Matild! How could you let Hiens get slashed by the orc assassin, you know he is my little brother! I swore to protect him!) This also fits in with the longer time skips I am using in my games to allow for community scale events. The dramatic scene is also a way better way to handle negotiation with NPCs, certainly much better then rolling against a diplomacy DC!

The procedural scenes, as written, are my least favorite part of the system and I would scrap them completely. D&D and other simulation style games are built to handle these kinds of conflicts and do it better than Dramasystem attempts to.

Rating: *** /*****, worth checking out (more so with Blood in the Snow), but maybe not worth buying the hard copy, especially if you can't stand story games

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

1d6 Treant Knights and Their Quests

Lets talk about Knights and Quests.

A Knight is someone who, through ardent belief and pure heart, quests.

A Quest is a long-form search, often in the form of a journey, trial, mission or other strongly intentioned action, undertaken by knights.

(You may notice the circular nature of these definitions. Knights do not, it all makes sense to their dreamy eyes and airy heads filled with convictions and ideals)

Yes, even they were true Knights, even if they were very silly.
Source: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Your love is betrothed to another? Become a Knight and Quest for their hand against all hardships and societal convention!

Your grand-sire once lost a fight ? Become a Knight and Quest to return your family's name to its original status!

Decide you really like that bridge? Become a Knight and Quest to never let anyone across it who can't beat you in a fight!

The church say that those infidels a hundred hundred leagues away live in the town God was born in? Become a Knight and Quest to cross the continent and join hands with your brothers and sisters to slaughter the nonbelievers and cleanse the holy city!

For the right Quest anyone can become a Knight. Even Treants.

1d6 Treant Knights and Their Quests

1: Ser Phoenix the Resiliant, first of the name, sprouted long ago in a lush oasis in the middle of a harsh desert. As the years past Able fought with his cohort in the slow wrestling match for light, eventually succumbing to darkness and death, or so he thought. He awoke to the hard wind of the desert covering his now animate trunk with biting sand and he took his first steps into the unknown.

Ser Phoenix quests to kill the South Wind, that wind that drowns oases in sandy death. He haunts the dunes around where he grew up, waiting for the day the South Wind is foolish enough to blow that way again. In the meantime he protects travelers unused to the ways of the desert.

Ser Phoenix is a date-palm of short stature, hardly taller than a man, and wears only his fibrous bark for armor. His lance is the quill of a dire cactus and he rides a chariot pulled by wild jackalopes. He has a rather dry humor, but will eventually warm up to strangers.

2: Ser Pruner of the Blossom was cut down six winters ago after a long treelife of providing crabapples to homesteaders. Her human neighbors had finally moved away and a logging camp had set up to clear the land, starting with Ser Pruner's orchard. As the axes bit into her stem, she gave a horrific shout and ambled out of the orchard and out of those mountains forever.

Still a young Treant, and a new knight at that, Ser Pruner quests to bear the best apples in the world. Through her journeys she collects pollen from her inanimate kin to bear their fruit, and every traveler she meets she will offer a brace of fresh apples to be judged.  Those that do not provide constructive feed back, or that run from the walking apple tree trying to get them to eat apples, will be the victims of her other quest: make sure everyone world loves apples.

Ser Pruner wears her ever blossoming branches loose and free, but wears a chainmail shirt and tabard with the likeness of an apple upon it. She does not ride, but rather has a pair of mules that cart the fruits of her labors. She wields a longstaff and wears a pair of sharp shears at her belt.

3: Ser Popule the Shaking was one ramet of a large aspen grove. He first sensed something was wrong centuries ago, when the far edge cried out in slow pain. As the decades ground on, so did his looming death, a glacier. When at last it was him and the wall of ice Ser Popule took his first quavering steps out of the way of the ice.

Now Ser Popule has made it his quest to never been cold again. Keep in mind that treants, like trees, aren't especially warm in the first place, but Ser Popule will not be dissuaded! He treks from cozy cabin to comfy bed, always with a thermos of warm sap in hand, always looking for a home the with forever be warm.

You'll rarely see his white barked face, Ser Popule wears heavy woolen clothing and furlined leather armor. He will occasionally strip to immerse himself in a hot-spring or tub, and then you will see his is tall and lanky and forever shivering. He rides a great white bear, and wields a flaming mace.

4: Ser Salix the Shambling grew wildly and with abandon in her youth, her greedy stems reaching for any light, her greedy roots drinking deep any water. One fall in the little valley choked with willow where she grew a chill settled on the lowlands, blackening her neighbors before they could shed their leaves and blighting them. Ser Salix would not sit idly by and freeze to death, so she uprooted and wandered to milder climes.

Ser Salix quests to protect the weak and helpless from the evils of gluttony. The Church converted her early on in her new life as a treant when they found her wallowing in the shallows of a creek drinking as much as her road hardened roots could absorb. The holy man that found her taught her the virtues of abstinence and so she preaches on the road and challenges any she sees as gluttonous to a duel.

Ser Salix would cram herself into the plate mail of a holy order of knights if she could, be she has settled for an iron corset of sorts, binding her many wandering stems into a tube. Its terribly uncofortable, so she will only gird herself when duels are imminent. She wields the most abstinent of weapons, a simple rod of iron and rides on an old donkey given to her by a converted farmer she preached to once.

5: Ser Cary who was Burned speaks little of his past, though the sharp eye can read his history on his old hickory face. The burn scars that go that deep rarely heal well, and the dead charcoal flesh takes on a deep black sheen after years in the rain and sun.

Ser Cary is on a quest to extinguish all fires. He is deep into this endevor, an expert fire fighter. He is currently arming himself with everything necessary to travel to the Plane of Fire to do battle there in a purer sense of the word with the animal spirits of the destructive element.

His fire hardened flesh acts well as a human knight's plate mail, and over it he wears a heavy oiled cloak to retard flames. He travels on the in a boat on the back of a water elemental he met and befriended years ago, and wields a strange mix between of an axe and pick that he swings with vigor and rage.

6: Ser Tsugan Half-Rotten will tell you his tale with a his great wheezey voice, how when he was still a tree a fungal blight came to his forest in the high peaks where he grew. In the alpine hemlock forests everything happens in slow motion, he watched neighbors and friends succumb to the rot, and one spring found the death in his own trunk. He sighed and figured he should see the world before he died, so he ripped up his roots and half-walked, half-tumbled down the mountain.

Ser Tsugan walks with obvious pain, and the remains of his corky face and often twisted into a resigned grimace. For all his discomfort Ser Tsugan is kind to every soul great and small he passes. You may find him politely listening to a waterfall waiting for it to be done speaking, or gingerly watching robins hatching in their nest. For his quest is to show kindness, even when it is hard.

Half-Rotten is a large treant, but bent into a hunch. He wears only robes of moss, kindly giving them a home. He rides no beast, but prefers to limp along side them for company. He wields no weapon, for what kindness can a weapon give?