Monday, April 7, 2014

Slumbering Ursine Dunes and The Myth of Arctolatry

For years all my dungeon and wilderness keys have been nothing but the most ephemeral of affairs: a small, semi-organized mountain of stained and terse random bits of paper. My games for the most part seem to run fine with the occasional, jarring bit of discontinuity as the price.

At any rate, something has moved in me (all vain and seductive) to try and write all the various adventure sites I have run here in the last 5-6 years as something more publicly presentable. The Golden Barge adventure locale came easy and with that momentum I started fleshing out the surrounding mini-sandbox area of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes and related sites as a pointcrawl.

Punchline is that in a month's time I will most likely have the whole package out as some kind of cheap for-charity pdf (or bundle it up with the never-ending Live Weird or Die blog compilation booklet project).

So at any rate, this all has me feeling especially fine so to celebrate I wrote another eminently silly Hill Cantons myth.
It so came to pass that Marzana tired of her second life among the Foreign Gods. “My lover is feckless and my poses grow affected and languid,” the Queen of Winter exclaimed with a great sigh. “I shall cover Zem in the bitterness of my cold and start anew.”

And so the great mountains of ice drove Pahr and his family from the fields of paradise. With horse and wagon Pahr's clan divided amongst the three elder sons and wandered Zem. Stanko, the youngest and most broke in the head of the three, reasoned that the cold of the Northlands must be like the darkness before dawn and must surely give out to warm lands of milk and honey. Thus his followers made great coracles from udders shorn from Velesh's cattle herd and crossed the World Canal.

But neither warmth nor milk nor honey was to be found. For one hundred years they fought the blueskins of the North and the fell creatures of the boreal forest until at one great battle Stanko and all his kin but one were slain.

Sad and strong the boy Mirko was left alone and he said to himself, “I make peace with having no milk but warmth and honey perhaps are found with our kin to the south.”

And Mirko wandered and wandered the hills of the south enacting great acts along the way. Finally he came to the shores of the sweet-smelling sea and made content he rested.

Sleeping upon the sand he was visited by Old Bear. Old Bear had a great hunger and seized upon Mirko's leg swallowing it in a mighty bite. Mirko awakened and crying in pain “Sweet Svat” did battle with Old Bear kicking up great mounds of sand in the struggle.

With his spear he pierced Old Bear and laid him down. Hungered Mirko began to eat Old Bear. His belly full but saddened by having consumed such a noble foe he was approached by Younger Bear. “Why have you eaten the flesh of Old Bear?” Younger Bear asked. “He is not unlike you in that he yearns for honey.”

“Sometimes you eat the bear,” Mirko replied. “And sometimes the bear eats you.”

“Is that some kind of Northern thing?” Younger Bear asked, but Mirko only shrugged in answer.

Mirko was made sad again and though he had eaten and beaten Old Bear decided he would share what remained of his life with him as one.

So Mirko and Old Bear became Medved, the seeker of honey, ruling all bears and bearlings from the dunes thrown up in their battle until the world-dialectic turns again.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Found Objects

Wayne of Wayne's Books fame posted a rather nice found object the other day, a hand-drawn and inked city map folded up in a second-hand rpg product. 

There is something bittersweet in stumbling over these finds. The sad fact that someone took their imagination seriously enough to have poured creative effort into them at one time—and then later in life that it mattered so little that they tossed them away.

One of the silver lining sides of having lost track of many of my own gaming books coupled with a “fishing trip” lunch-hour obsession with Half Price Books is that I too have ended up with a burgeoning collection of these found objects.

To be sure most of them fall into the category of the junk Wayne mentions, a small mountain of filled-out character sheets. Even then there is some fleeting interest in a glance at these snapshots from the early 80s, the graceless awkward tween boy handwriting, the goofy character names, the dramatic scribbling over of an obviously dead character and the like.

But a good fifth of the time I find something more interesting: a dream stronghold illustration, a castle map, a letter-code key (from my own brother's Players Handbook and likely to be for one of my dickish ciphers), an AD&D combat slide ruler (totally useful), a page of a dungeon key (my own Tree Maze), etc.

I love the fragmented, divorced-from-context nature of them, it spurs my imagination. Was that stronghold the culmination and reward for a long-arc of play by a particular character? How large was that dungeon? Was that drawn by another kid like me?

Yesterday in the mail came a boxed Runequest Vikings set, I had what I consider a huge find: five solid dense handwritten pages of an adventure. Though written for Runequest likely somewhere in the mid-1980s it has all the classic features of a D&D dungeon homebrewed by an early teen of that period. The room descriptions are wonderfully goofy and unbalanced.
Take the hilarious entry door description: “2 levers, 1 says pull, 1 says don't pull. If you pull the the one that says don't pull, the passage behind you collapses...”

Or this room description: “30 small humanoid creatures. They cower and offer no resistance. There is a stockpile of food and water. If the food is taken the creatures will get all riled up and 300 more will pour of the caves and attack.”

Take that encounter level!

I know the rest of you are uncovering your own flotsam and jetsam of gaming past. Land any big ones?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

I Am A Golden God. Again.

Detective Cohle had the right of it. Time is indeed a flat circle.

And lest you think I am (again) ragging on the forum-warriors who Vahalla-style arise to fight the same butthurt-battles, I am aiming closer to home.

Mulling over last night's Hill Cantons game, one of those strangely enjoyable “town” sessions that just meanders around, my brain went back to one of the big-ticket PC and high-ranking NPC goals in the campaign: apotheosis.

The punchline here is that I sat down this morning to write a post about that drive to divine ascension in the campaign, ripped the Robert Plant/Almost Famous classic phrase—and realized I had not only written a post on that subject a few years back but gave it the very same header


Let's break with the quantum skein of the Norns and take it a different direction. Let's talk about the specifics on how one becomes a god.

Let's take that little tucked-away and sadly dry as sand section on the subject in the AD&D's Deities and Demigods book (page 11) as a baseline. In that version to become a god you must meet four criteria:
1. the character has to have surpassed the average level of all NPCs in the campaign (being something like 25-30th level in one that 15th is the average).

2. His ability scores have to be magically raised to beyond human levels on par with the vaguely-defined “lesser demigods.”

3. He must have sincere followers.

4. He must have been a faithful true follower of his patron deity and alignment.

I can live with one as an objective marker of personal power (though the rather low power range of NPCs in the Hill Cantons sets the bar around 11-13th level). Point two to me seems both a bit dull and munchkin like. Four is just a terrible fit for the tone of my campaign. In fact, I am not even sure who many of the PCs worship as a patron god (if any) and alignment is more about the vague cosmic team you identify with than the codified belief system of AD&D.

Three I like the best as it points to something I believe is more important than just accumulating enough personal mojo, it's more about an open-ended goal that can be played out in the course of the game. It's about the doing. It also sets out the rather interesting gameable and well rooted literary idea that deities power fluctuates with the size and deeds of their following.
Coming to the point here's my rough idea of what you need to do to become a godling in the Hill Cantons:
1. The character has to be personally powerful (at least 12th level or whatever the class level max is) and known by repute to be powerful.

2. The player has to be able to push their way into the cosmology of the setting. Whether that's stealing/usurping the portfolio of an existing (and perhaps downwardly mobile) god, destroying or consuming their life force, recreating a lost mythic pattern, starting a state cult, being absorbed by a godhead, creating a whole new religious framework, or whatever. There just has to be someway of fitting into it all. In the Hill Cantons where my cosmology is funkier and more hidden than the D&D multiverse, it also means that the player has figured out by the hard work of play at least some of what the hell is going on behind the cosmological mysteries.

3. You must pull around you a real sincere group of followers by hook or crook (the latter seems popular to the party right now). Hoodwink them, dazzle them, whatever but you have to a sizeable group of NPCs believing in your dance. Quantifiable? Dunno.

4. Those followers must have some infrastructure and organization. You have to have temples, shrines, groves, clergy and accountants all the outward trappings of a cult.

5. Finally you have to accomplished several Herculean “great acts” in this world and the others. I like the idea that it the PC has to have successfully undertaken a truly epic mythopoeic “heroquest” (or two, I do so love Glorantha). Fortunately Barry Blatt has already laid out a lovely scheme for in-game heroquesting (in a pointcrawl format no less) that may be portable to a D&D framework. 

6. Importantly it means the player is ready to hang it up at least for that character. It means retiring in the ultimate End Game.

Still want to be a golden god?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Creation Myth for the Cantons

All unbearable fantasy worlds demand a ponderous and senseless creation myth. Why should Zem, the world of the Hill Cantons differ? 

Tell us, oh savant of savants, oh chanter of lullabies, oh chiseler of gratuities, now that we are deep into our cups, the origin of this turtle-bound world?

First there was the Void.

Void? Surely nullity could not exist before World-Matter?

It matters little, of it's Nature we can not say but that All Void is divided into Three Parts. In the beginning, tiring of the Space of Demons the Overgod floated into the Insufferable Void on his great galley.

“What is the measure of my being?” he asked no one in particular. The Overgod was a restless god, troubled by his past of toil and tribulation and overeager for evolution. After listening to the ungrateful pattering and never-ending sideways stories of the Void only for answer he became impatient. “I must begin my work again,” he said to the poor-listening Void.

The Overgod began to toil. Great balls of burning vapor he hurled into the reaches of the Void, who bothered not to pause in story even. Around these balls he spun smaller balls of rock, metal, ice and gas. Great rings he placed here and there and span them all.

Enough with the old wives tales, man.
And in all that creation the Overgod grew frustrated and weary. “This is but the same as before. My work is thankless and jejune.” In his weariness he invented Drink in order to care not.

And the Overgod drank and drank and drank.

And soon he was joyous, dancing upon his creations in defiance. “I can take all you motherfuckers,” he roared before slipping off the shoulders of a gas giant. And then he slept for a great aeon and Drink split and covered many of the rocks.

And he slept and slept and in those wet, yeasty places grew Ocean.

When Overgod woke, his head felt smitten. “What have I done with my Drink?” he muttered piteously and his weariness came again.

“I crave sensation,” he mused to the newly-cowed Void. So he divided himself into Man and Woman and Both and he/she/them loved themselves in countless couplings. And the Overgod(s) begat other gods, the Little Gods.

Tiring of this and marveling at the wonder of his many offspring, he reformed and watched them in their dance for a great while.

But even this became stale, the staging too familiar and circular, the tales too predictable and then he created the Weird and the Dialectic that things would always change and not-change and then change again anew throughout the ages. Now pleased with his great work, a complicated, terrible and beautiful thing, he invented Drink again.

And again he drank and drank and slept and slept. And the Little Gods begat even littler gods and demons even and all fought and drank and stole and loved and lived again and again. And such is where our world in our time began.

There is something missing old man. Why do you shrug so?

Ale co se delas? (Old Pahr: “But what can you do?”)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Pointcrawling Inside Hexes

Many a virtual page has been sacrificed on this here blog in elaborating various pointcrawling schemes. One could leave with the impression that I was completely down on hex maps in general.

This is really not at all the case. I still find that hexes still have a great deal of utility. Their numbering system and wide-open organization are ideal for any campaign I run where thorough 360-degree exploration and domain game-like clearing are central activities (such as the new colonizing Feral Shore phase of the campaign). It makes it hella easy in that context to organize the session when the players just say “ok so let's explore some of the hexes around the fort, we will take 21.20 and hop on to 21.19 and 21.18”

But I just can't leave it alone.

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of the actual site organization of a single hex, I tend to fall back on using a pointcrawl nestled right up in the hex. My brain continues to rebel against the yawning emptiness of even the five-mile hex in traditional D&D wilderness hex thinking (that point being made so well here) and it needs to fill in that space with a number of small little “rooms.”

So when it comes down to that kind of micro-exploration, I like having the more focused choices of the dungeon and the point-connector schema mirrors that nicely.

How does mixing the two systems work?

A good starting point for showing what I am on about is to boogie back to my original inspiration for the idea, that wonderful old Avalon Hill warhorse (that I could never figure out how the hell to play with all my preciousness as a tween): Magic Realm. One of the most fascinating and visually-interesting components of the game were the hex geomorphs that allowed you to build a totally new gameboard everytime you played (they also could be flipped to reveal a nifty new purple-hued configuration when the hex was transformed by sorcery, but no need to go into that).

The hexes provide an interesting way to break down the hex into smaller areas and provide a number of constrained exploration choices and dilemmas for a party wanting to scout out the whole area. 
A single Magic Realm hex.

Unpunched for the full effect
My own system is a bit less “geomorphy,” the external connections into the hex are a bit more abstracted and free-form to push back on the “gaminess” and allow for multiple approaches into the hex. I use the same color and connector in my wilderness pointcrawl (rather than restate the whole thing just look here at the text right after the pointcrawl illustration). Here is a semi-hypothetical example. 
Contents of a mashed-up Feral Shore five-mile hex
The only significant difference is the scaling amount of time between points and the dots on connectors that represent extra travel time. On occasion my pure wilderness pointcrawls may include contours, I make greater use of these in the intra-hex pointcrawl.

That's really all there is. As always the system continues to evolve, some concepts getting dropped as too fiddly, others getting more elaboration over time.

Questions? Suggestions for improvement?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Playdoh Monster Arena Rules

A favorite “let's kill 30 minutes because Mr. K has a migraine” pastime in the worldbuilding and creative writing class for tweens I teach is the much-beloved “Playdoh Monster Arena.”

The rules are pretty dang simple, a stripped down version of the Clay-O-Rama playdoh monster rules from Dragon Magazine #125 (which I had a blast playing at our mini-con with full grown adults). But trust me this game brings out the competitive beast in even the sweetest of ten-year olds.

Monster Arena Rules
All monsters are:
constructed from at least a single large handful of playdoh;

allowed a d6 in hit points (unless they are “tough” see below);

have either three bombs no bigger than a dime or one single large bomb that's the size of a quarter.

A monster can opt to be one of three things:
Tough. They get an extra die worth of hitpoints.

Mean. They get two melee attacks in one turn.

Fast. They move at twice the normal speed (four handspans)

The Turn
1. Initiative. Determine who goes first with a d6. Highest score goes first and then around the table clockwise.

2. Bombs Away. The player gets to throw his bomb. His hand must stay behind the plane of his own monster, anything thrown over that is disqualified. A hit does a d6 worth of hp damage.

3. Movement. Monster can move two handspans (Fast monsters go four).

4. Melee. If the phasing monster is in direct contact with another monster he can make a melee attack. Roll a d6 on a 4,5,6 he hits. Roll a d6 for damage.

A monster killed in the line of duty is smashed by its creator (unless the ref rules that the poor creature has “exemplary artistic merit” in which case, take him home).

Proceed until there is only one sore winner champion-monster on the table.