Friday, March 27, 2015

Derailing Castle Amber

A couple days ago I had a strangely-urgent request from a two (and a half) year-old to read the Erol Otus-covered X2 Castle Amber (alternately titled now “The Giant Crashes the Castle”). When you get such a request only a douche doesn't comply and I duly read out the first three pages in High Children Books Narrator Voice.

While chuckle-making in itself it did give me an opportunity to reread that old favorite. I distinctly remember Castle Amber being the module that I enjoyed running over any other adventure TSR produced back then. Did it still merit top billing in my brain?

For sure I had no idea who Clark Ashton Smith was at the time (and it took me a full 25 years later to get acquainted with and dig his writing), but the Averoigne mini-setting folded up inside resonated with me in a way other TSR setting whoha didn't at that time. Growing up as a history fanatic, a France-like place circa 1100-1350 AD had a cultural reference point that made it easier to picture mentally.

Further because of that resonance, the gothic horror/weird fantasy elements of Clark Ashton Smith (not that I could have put my finger on it) just seemed sharper and more fantastic. That you would have pagans roaming the woods for human sacrifices or a blood-red comet that would induce an abbot to transform into hazy-formed beast struck me as more fantastic and terrifying than clearing a dungeon of humanoids in the Pomarj.

Restless soul that I am I put together a set of things I would do to hack, spindle and otherwise mutilate the module to fit my own play style and prejudices. In other words “gussing it up” a la Gus L's wonderful series of reviews and derailings of the old B-series modules.
Current me hates the railroady overarching conceit of the adventure that you are trapped inside the castle. Even less particular early teen me got bored with too many sessions trapped away from the main campaign area and put in some handwavy, deus ex machina gates at the end of each session.

Change one would be to simply remove the lethal sorcerous mist that clings around the chateau. What the adventure (dubiously) loses with the dramatic tension of the players having to scramble to release the curse on Stephen Amber (who is trapped inside his tomb) and escape the chateau, it gains with expanding the choices for approaching it as a site-based adventure.

Secondly, I wouldn't ditch freeing Stephen Amber as a potential framing quest--just replace the stick with a carrot. The trapped mage showers the party with big ticket value jewelry and magic items anyway, perhaps just have him appear as an apparition when the party finds the “clues” scroll (hidden in three spots) or some other trigger and promise the party cash on the drum for getting him out of his jam. The clues themselves give a nice framing quest for exploring Averoigne complete with some red herring so retain that.

(And while you are at, now that the party can retreat and rest outside like in a typical sandbox campaign, ditch that heavy-handed freebie bit in which Stephan magically protects the party inside from all harm when they rest.)
Click to Enlarge
Chokepoints, Sideloops and Non-Linearity
At first glance the design of the “dungeon” looked very linear and dull to current me (you can see a copy of the map here). The adventure starts from a single point the entrance to the West wing and has a single hallway with side chambers.

Interestingly though some closer spatial analysis (see above) reveals it to be a more interesting space with slightly wider exploration choices (though one still a little marred by the railroaded single entrance and funneled exploration). Each wing (Moldvay suggests that each section is designed for a single session's worth of exploration) is chokepointed but all seem to have a few side-loops. The dungeon itself is relatively small but is nicely non-linear with two entrances from separate wings (the Chapel and East Wing) and two compact but internally non-linear side-sections.

While theoretically non-linear, the extreme lethality of stepping off the single path in the central Indoor Forest creates too much funnel for my taste. I would ratchet back or eliminate some of the thorn walls, pits and encounters. Let the players wander right into that Wild Hunt that breaks the hill open on there own.

Removing the railroad above really heightens the non-linear approach by eliminating the single entrance and instantly gives three easily-approachable front entrances to the West Wing, Indoor Forest, and East Wing (see the illustration) and numerous potential entrances through the numerous large-paned windows (though I would add some kind of challenge or obstacle to doing so like the windows being only breakable or high of the ground as the stairs up to the porticos suggest). Adding that front door entrance to the Indoor Forest gives players even more options.
Enlarge me
Replace the Hex Map
The hex map of Averoigne is functional and fine though it seems pointless to have it be at such a large scale (12 whopping miles per hex giving long travel periods between the sites). The hexes are superfluous anyway as the sites are teased and the exploration presumed to be goal oriented in searching for the four quest items to open the gate to Stephen Amber's tomb (and thus less about meticulous 360 degree exploration).

Tim Kirk's map (above) is such a beauty I would just go ahead and swap it out for the module map, maybe adding a simple pointcrawl diagram to keep track of the players' positions.

Kingdom of the Ghouls
One of my favorite bits in the module is Room 56 which appears at first glance to just be a boring old pit with some ghouls guarding it. The terse room description reveals it to be in fact a vast labyrinth and entrance to an entire land of ghouls (which naturally you had to develop on your own). I continue to eat up those kinds of challenges.

Fitting the faux-France angle here why not just take the fantastic sprawling maps and setting décor of the actual Paris Catacombs. Further make it an interactable place with interesting NPCs, hooks and internal tensions by reskinning the Dead Nations from Planescape Torment wholecloth.

Amp up the CAS
Rereading the module got me to also reread a few choices stories from CAS's Averoigne cycle. While Moldvay does a bang up job of adapting elements from the stories to a game context, I certainly felt that taking up his suggestion to expand the sites with unused elements from the stories was a good and noble effort. There is some weird fantasy gold missing such as the grotesque Mother of Toads in Les Hiboux, the haunted castle Fausseflammes, vampire lair etc that just cry out for someone with time on their hands to expand (cough, cough not me).

What would your Castle Amber look like?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Hill Cantons Compendium II Released

After half an eternity (in internet gaming circles time) the Hill Cantons Compendium has been revised and extended. You can Pay Whatever the Hell You Want for the PDF right here on DriveThru.

Gone thanks to Mike Davison's able layout hand is the clumsy (I would like to think charmingly amateur, but who am I fooling) layout and unused house rule sections. Expanded (almost doubled) are the number of dumb/brilliant player classes and I even threw several pages of special snowflake information about the Hill Cantons proper.

What you will find inside:
  • Nine variant old school fantasy (and Labyrinth Lord)-compatible player classes: the Mountebank, Chaos Monk, Robo-Dwarf, Feral Dwarf, White Wizard, Half-Ogre, Black “Halflings”, Pantless Barbarian and, of course, the War Bear.
  • Character background mini-game/alternative generator with quick random equipment charts.
  • Zero-level character generation and play rules.
  • Variant rules for simple attribute checks.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Dunes Stretch Adventures Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

The holiday period was naturally a bit of a bear (pun not intended) for the Slumbering Ursine Dunes production crew. While we got the main adventure out before deadline for the PDF and just on deadline for the print, I spent an ungodly amount of time troubleshooting Print-on-Demand issues with Lulu and DriveThru.

January was slower than anticipated but we made progress, so fortunately this isn't leading up to a slew of the usual Kickstarter excuses and nervous shuffling. In fact I feel rather proud of the fact that we have pushed the stretch adventures up from small 20-page mini-adventure affairs to four separate full-length adventures—Fever Dreaming Marlinko, The Misty Isles of the Eld, Anthony's California Dunes and What Ho, Frog Demons-- that will be close or as long as the main adventure. (All four will also be available in both PDF and print form on DriveThru.)

Which all leads up to the actual point of this post. Each adventure is developing a highly-distinct look with a single artist devoted to each. I've found myself getting caught in a “dialectic” in which I see these magnificent pieces and get inspired to do more writing—Luka's illustrations spawning several new additions to my weighty bestiary section in the Misty Isles already.

Similarly seeing some finished work by Jeremy Duncan (who as a player in the campaign made a number of character sketches that will forever be what I see in my mind's eye) for Marlinko. This grotty piece shows the sparagmos rite in the catacombs of the bizarre alien cult Church of the Blood Jesus. So lovely.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Ursine Dunes Pointcrawl Map Download and Review Round-Up

One thing I have greatly appreciated from the Slumbering Ursine Dunes project has been the chance to grow as a writer. Nothing helps more than honest critical assessment and fortunately I've been receiving much to think about how to up my game from thoughtful participants in our milieu.

Brendan S for one in his thoughtful review raises some challenges about how to present adventures for better use in the heat, smoke and noise of the table. We've been talking a good deal about that at the Hydra meetings and we are trying to rise to that challenge. 

The first and easiest step is providing a full-size download of the cramped A5-size pointcrawl map (and this may have broader interest to folks who haven't bought the mini-sandbox). You can find a letter-sized PDF as a download right here.

We are also producing a "dungeon pamphlet" as a separate download that will organize the whole adventure into its gameable at-the-table elements. That piece will go out to backers for free. 

Also while we are at here are some of the other fine reviews of SUD:

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Talking Special Snowflakes and Strange Stars with Trey Causey

Resplendent in its Star Frontiers-homage, full color cover, Trey Causey's Strange Stars setting book has finally hit the virtual stands both in PDF and print form. Having watched this product grow from a wee germinal of an idea--and had any number of rambling, tangential conversations with Trey along the way--I feel entirely to close to give the book a decent, critical review. (But really you should buy this thing, it's one of the best pieces to come out of the tsunami wave of DIY hobbyist products in recent months).

A little more interesting is to open that conversation stream a little to a broader audience (as I did with his Weird Adventures) to hear the what and why that went into the making of SS.

Hill Cantons: Let's talk Strange Stars. I will admit to being deeply fascinated watching you grow these worlds and products bit by bit from the floor level via posts on your blog, From the Sorcerer's Skull. The sepia/black and white images and little digressions that came out with Weird Adventures sucked me in and kept me pulling for you all the way to press time. Tell me about how SS came to be and how it developed on the blog. What moved you to do this and what was the process like doing it in this slow reveal-by-blog type way?

Trey Causey: With doing a blog six days a week at one point (now roughly five), I spend a lot of time brainstorming/daydreaming content. I had toyed with a couple of science fictional concepts that didn’t quite take off (though I’d sort of like to return to them one day) like an alt-history pulp space and a science fantasy Greek mythology thing. One sort of fun (I thought) but largely throwaway post I did was on Talislanta as a space opera setting. That post got some positive feedback, which always tends to prompt me to expand on an idea a bit more.

I got maybe three more posts out of it and in the comments to one of those, Brutorz Bill of the Green Skeleton Gaming Guild suggested I ought to do my own sci-fi thing, like “Weird Adventures in Space.” Thinking about doing my own thing (but with Talislanta Space ideas still in my brain), I wound up writing the first of the Strange Stars posts—though it didn’t have that name or any name, at that point. It grew from there, becoming more and more its own thing as it went on. Ten posts and about a month later, it was christened “Strange Stars.”

As anything would that’s developed in bite-size bits over a period of a couple of years, Strange Stars sort of lurched in somewhat different directions at times. The earliest posts are trying hard to rationalize science fantasy concepts into something a little harder sci-fi. Then there came a bit of weirdness probably inspired by Prophet and revisiting old issues of Heavy Metal, and here and there, small doses of “serious” science fiction brought on by my reading Alistair Reynolds and Charles Stross. All the time though, I knew I wanted it to mix the stuff I read in modern science fiction novels with the stuff I saw in mid-60s to mid-80s sci-fi comics, films, and paperback covers. The aesthetic was always important—which is often a frustrating thing when you are not yourself an artist.

HC: We've talked a good deal one on one about immersive worldbuilding and setting work as part of the DIY rpg scene--both of us seeming to fall down on being fans of those kinds of efforts. I rather like how SS hits a sweet spot balance: it's unashamedly and purely about setting/worldbuilding but it breaks info-dump down into tiny bites and leaves a lot of evocative questions off stage. How do you see SS fitting into the discussion of so-called Special Snowflake settings?

TC: Looking at the stuff produced on blogs and in publications by the DIY crowd we’re both somewhat associated with, I think it’s clear people like setting stuff, despite what’s sometimes said about it in the abstract. I think the real issue isn’t “setting versus no setting” but the suggestive leanness of a pulp fiction novella versus the over-elaboration of a multi-volume, doorstop fantasy epic.

The debate often framed as “setting detail versus freedom” is really something more like “inspiring setting versus constraining setting.” If I'm right, and the second issue is the real one, then there are things we can do about it. The traditional, prose heavy ways of delivering setting information are the prevailing style, not necessarily the best way to do it. I wanted to try something at least a bit different.

There’s always a balance to be sought, though. The things that some people complain about regarding settings are exactly the things other people like about them. I got minor complaints about stuff that Weird Adventures didn’t address, and I don’t doubt I will get some of that with Strange Stars which leaves even larger lacunae. Sometimes I left things out due to space considerations, and other times because I hadn’t thought to include it. What I would really love to see is Strange Stars not as one special snowflake, but a number of them because people take it and come up with totally different stuff to fill in those holes. I want to read a G+ or a blog post and catch myself thinking: “but--but that’s not how I would do it at all!”

HC: The Terran Trade Authority and Galactic Encounter books of the late 1970s were huge aesthetic influences on my young brain (as were the Star Wars fan booklets and comics). Classic Traveller was free of any illustrations for years and those books filled in the blanks. There clearly seems some linkage to those image-rich books in your inspiration stew. Can you tell me about that and the other inspiration points?

TC: There is, indeed. The Galactic Encounters book, Aliens in Space, was the only one of these I read in childhood, but it made quite an impression. I bought it a few years ago and a couple of books from imitator series. I have also always been a fan of reference works for fictional worlds (particularly well-done, fan-made ones) like the Star Fleet Technical Manual, and the Starfleet Medical Reference Manual, but also more recent things like the image-heavy Dorling Kindersley Star Wars and Star Trek books. Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials is there, too. A lot of 70s comics like The Legion of Superheroes by Grell and Cockrum, and stuff by Chaykin and Starlin were on my mind, too.

A lot of these things have design aesthetics that seem a bit silly at times, perhaps. Certainly they never seem “cutting edge.” That was part of the reason I liked them and wanted to draw from them. The future is never going to be exactly how we view it in the present; like the past, it’s a different country. Using outdated styles, I feel like, gets us past what’s currently cool in to something just a bit alienating—like the real future is likely to be. Also, I wanted the future to seem “lived in” and grubby, but again not the lived in and grubby of dystopian futures of the 2000s. The seventies is the point where science fiction first moved from sterile and shiny to grubby and worn, visually.

HC: Layout and design wise SS is impressive for a one-man DIY outfit. What did it take to get it to that point?

TC: Thanks. Mostly, I would say it took the technical acumen of Lester B. Portly. Before that, though, the conception was a long time in coming. I had been sort of trying to write something “Strange Stars” since late 2013, but it just wasn’t flowing. Sometime in early 2014, I got the idea to do a whole setting book in pictures. I’m sure it wasn’t from nowhere; there was probably some discussion on G+ or something that inspired it.

Anyway, this panel in Prophet was the first thing I thought of.

I realized, of course, I wasn’t going to be able to afford enough art to do a whole setting book like that, so I looked to the Dorling Kindersley books as the primary model. I put sample pages from several of those, and sample pages from some pages from comic books like DC Secret Files and Handbook of the Marvel Universe and started talking to Lester. His initial thought was that what I wanted was too expensive, but was willing to provide his help to paring it down.

Once we had a vague idea of the basic template (which Lester would keep refining as we went on), I picked out the fonts I wanted and made a style guide. Before the design was finalized, I already had the artist working on the images. The first few pages (the Vokun and Alliance spreads) were the hardest, but after that we pretty much had it down.

HC: You have some mechanically-minded supplements coming up the pike that will translate SS into something that can be run straight out of the box. Tell me about those.

TC: I knew from early on that I wanted to do implementations of the setting in multiple systems. John Till of Fate SF stepped up and offered his services to do the Fate supplement, and he’s been putting a lot of work into it. I think Fate fans will be pleased. I’m compiling and rounding out the Stars Without Number based stats that I used with most of the blog posts in the setting, plus adding some random generators for orbital habitats, adventures,  and the like.

I got an email the other day from a guy wanting to do a Traveller supplement; I would love to see that and anything else that gets somebody fired up enough to do it.

HC:So what's next? What other projects have you been mulling?

TC: So many possibilities, so little time! I’ve got science fiction/science fantasy jones at the moment. I’d like to compile my Baroque Space (space travel in a solar system governed by alchemical science) posts and maybe go back and do the same with Gods, Demigods & Strangeness (the Greek myth thing I mentioned). The past couple of days, I’ve been contemplating a Heavy Metal –style psychedelic space opera universe design kit. I would love if Strange Stars was so successful that I was able to do a deluxe edition with pages and more art.

Of course, there’s my Baum/Dunsany/Adventure Time Land of Azurth campaign—and the Weird Adventures Companion that I want to get out before I die. That’s about all the dreaming for this month.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Five Hottest Clickbait Books of the Hill Cantons

I love the hell out of books and naturally my bibliomania pushes its way into the campaign. In fact my notebooks are sloppy with this kind of in-game artifacts and self-indulgence. Five best-selling examples from the campaign year 40214...

A Briefe and True Report of the Divers Land and Peoples of the Feral Shore
Author: Alojiza nad Hromon
Physical Appearance: Crimson pelgrane hide cover with a gorgeously-illuminated interior rendered in the ink of bisytsia (she-devil) tears. Pressed paper (disappointingly cheap and thin). 86 pages
Cost: 149 gold suns and 99 copper sags

The third best-selling release this year from the Guild of Potboilers, Ghost Writers, Scribes and Jakes Farmers. The book is “selling in the tens,” an astounding commercial hat trick for the guild, and relates the author's experiences having scandalously dressed in simple cloth and cut her exquisite curly main into a bob to pass as a common laborer in the little-known Kezmaroki crown colony called Karldeset (or King's Ten). Strangely the book is written in the form of random tables.

Choice Excerpts:
“5. The colonists of the Shore differ much in apparel from the Kežmarokis although little in indolence and deceitfulness.”

“38. The Lords of the Shore are coarse and low. Indeed they wallow in their base natures, self-describing their Company as the Nefarious Nine. Colony discipline is handled quite-literally by a clown who fear of curbs the excess of vice commonly found in an assemblage of drink-besotted laboring men. And the rest of the bizarre Nine number among them an oily grifter, a disturbing doctor of unknown academic acumen, a full-toothed handsome but shady royal pretender, a foppishly-attired cave dwarf, a vinegar-smelling half-giant, a drunken alien priest, and a clockwork midget.”

“59. It is an error to call those on the Shore heretically ultra-orthodox (as is the common way with Kežiamoors), the folk are true pagans raising a vast new temple—in between two villages inhabited only by monkeys--to the vanity of the dead many-faced gods of the Old Pahr.”

A Brief Relation of the World-Dungeon Unitary, As it Was Delivered to the Folk of Marlinko
Author: Son of Mulmak
Physical Appearance: Folded, continuous codex with pressed paper and printed by a cutting-edge “printing press”. 16 pages.
Cost: 20 gold suns
A provocative new pamphlet rocking the excitable (and riot-prone) academic world of the Cantons. The booklet theorizes that mirroring the surface of the world is a vast subterranean network of dank chambers, byzantine tunnels, tomb complexes, fiendish traps, treasure houses, and creatures fell.

That said “dungeons” combining those elements exist is a matter of consensus among scholars, but this new doctrine of pandungeonism that claims that all said murderholes are but the surface manifestations of a single world-dungeon has already drawn the ire of the ecumenical council of the Temple who have deemed it and its anonymous author “borderline heretical.”

The Altricious Cycle of Supernal Japery
Author: Third-Commander Jaasher, translation by Lady Szara
Physical Appearance: Compressed fingernail-clipping cover with scraped donkey-skin parchment.
48 pages
Cost: 250 gold suns
A cruelly satirical book of poetry written in Classical Eld Iambic pentameter now translated into the vernacular of Low Hyperborean by the famous society lady (and rumored strigoi) Lady Szara. The translated copy is subtitled “As Seen in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes” and sports a promotional blurb from Sir Eld: “The underdeveloped hairless ape mind cannot wrap its feeble brain capacity around the sheer joy and wonder of Jaasher's work. Still buy it if you must.”
Five Shades of Azure
Author: Captain Balazas
Physical Appearance: Sparse but functional leather-bound volume with standard vellum. Full-color erotic plates inside. 128 pages.
Cost: 300 gold suns
Choice Excerpt: “Contrary to the prejudices of the Rock [High Kežmarok] our Pahr subjects here on the Shore are not quite the uncouth louts they are made out to be in polite society. To the contrary, I have had many a pleasing—if such a word can be used when suffering the pains of court exile—moment here at Vygrot in their hearty bearded company laughing at their colorful tall tales, seeing the blush of the red-cheeked village maidens in their white linen and floral bodices...[long, racy and embarrassingly clumsy digression].

Lost Vlko and Romuilak the Lupine
Author: Unattributed but commissioned by “He Whose Howls Echo Among the Ages, His Fecundity, Tazrun, the Illuminous and Mighty Seneschal of All the Southlands.”
Physical Appearance: Embroidered leather cover strung with cat-gut and smelling vaguely of wet dog. 64 pages
Cost: 150 gold suns
Choice Excerpt: “For a people who had their origin in the horse-stunk nomad hordes of the Sea of Grass the Pahr people have been remarkably at home in the scrubby hills, rounded peaks, high valleys and crags of Zem. While many of the hill clans have long since been domesticated into the (slightly) more sedate lives of Overkingdom cantons, tales of the “lost kingdoms”, Old Pahr petty mountain kingdoms that dropped from the historical record centuries ago--and into the popular imagination of this day.

One such tale that looms large in the so-called Southern Cycle, that great collection of folk ballads and tall tales of how the Pahr came to migrate, conquer and be conquered in the post-Hyperborean era, is that of Vlko and its hirsute, half-wild founder, Romuilak the Lupine. Many a man of science would like to believe that Vlko still exists, nestled high in the Cerny mountains, with a people prospering by the simple, bellicose virtues of the Old Pahr hidden and secure from modernity.”

Also Rans
A Modest Survey of History High and Low in the Overkingdom's Late Modernity by the scandal-ridden Cantontonal historian Jiri Paveliak (whose elaborate backstory bedazzles all). 

The World-Dialectic: Is it For You? by Jarek the Nagsman.