Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Dunes are Nigh and Other News

Labor Day always heralds the traditional end of Summer, even if someone always forgets to tell the sadistic weather gods that rule Texas. As the season winds down so does work on the Slumbering Ursine Dunes project.

With five editing iterations under its belt--and a last final one for good measure--Slumbering Ursine Dunes is pretty much done. Now unto the part where I work through my knee-jerk anti-commericalism and go into crowdfunding mode. Most all bits of the Kickstarter are in place and we just need a few more “t's” to cross, expect to see it officially launch early next week.

An update on what interested folks can expect:
1. More art and cartography from David Lewis Johnson. The drop-dead gorgeous cover is now in its final stage (that's it above) and all the black and white interior art is looking to be quite good. Our very first stretch goal at $2000 will cover packing in more of his great work.

2. Immediate gratification with the draft PDF. The artless, draft 50-page PDF will be sent to all backers, including a $2 “test drive” pledge level, shortly after the drive starts. Feedback naturally is always welcome.

3. A modest-priced top pledge tier with lots of goodies. For 25 bucks a backer will get the finalized PDF, print 50(ish) page adventure and a package of past and backer-exclusive Hill Cantons PDFs including By This Axe (medieval-fantasy minis rules), By This Poleaxe (pen-and-paper rules for running battles in Old School D&D), The Dunes Run Red (a mini-supplement with battle scenarios for the Dunes), and Hill Cantons Cosmology (a backer-exclusive run-down of gods, godlings, special clerical powers and myths).

4. Non-junky/schlocky stretch goals. Forget the belt buckles, the project stretch goals will focus on getting more content into your hot little hands. The second stretch goal will help us produce a two-page “cheat sheet”, an organized digest version of relevant room, site and monster descriptions to help cut down on having to hunt through the full version during play.

All other stretch goals will add a heap of new dungeons and adventure material--including a total re-imagine of the Dunes that puts the players into the roles of trappers in 1830s Northern California where they’ll encounter the weird inhabitants of a “mythic America.”

5. Hydra Cooperative (re)launch. The Dunes Kickstarter rings in the first product of what we expect to be many by the newly-reborn Hydra Cooperative, a revival of my idea to run a worker-owned/DIY-oriented rpg publishing outfit. (Hydra is as of last month an officially recognized “member LLC” in Texas, more about it and upcoming projects later this month.)

But now the news from the real world...

The Rada of Marlank, in an apparently arbitrary fit of borderlands pique and Pahr identity politics, has decreed that the southern cantonal city will heretofore not be referred to its Nemec exonym and may only be referred to as “Marlinko.”Official reasons remain mirky but one Rada councilmember anonymously stated that it “reminded them too much of Fritz.” Local residents continue to call the city whatever the Cold Hell they please.

Speaking of Marlan...err Marlinko, tiger-wrasslin' has come back in vogue thanks to a self-proclaimed “Master Beastmaster” newly immigrated from points south. Local characters willing to go toe to claw with a lovable furry orange killing machine should inquire with bon vivant Jarek the Nagsmen. A 500 gold sun bounty is offered for anyone who survives the match.

Travellers on the Muth trade road claim that the always mysterious Slumbering Ursine Dunes has “doubled itself.” The salt merchants bizarrely maintain that the region seems to be twice as big as the last time they passed and exactly identical in its features. The western dunes appears however to be "somewhat blurry."

That melancholy metropolis of Kezmarok has been strangely quiet the last three months. The Monarch Formerly Known as the Decade King has stated that “in one months time our year's worth of plans will come to fruition and our Great City will be restored.” With a dramatic and heroic flourish he pointed to the northeastern horizon.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Slumbering Ursine Dunes Is A-Comin'

I've jibber jabbered here and there about the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, the Mythical Wilderness sub-region of the campaign that I have been slowly, slowly, slowly turning into a mini-sandbox for public consumption.

Longtime readers will have probably noticed that I have also spent a good chunk of time here on the blog and on Google Plus raising criticisms of the excesses of the rpg crowd-funding way and the commercialization of our hobby. As I gear up for horror of horrors a modest Kickstarter in early September I also gear up for not being a complete ass of a hypocrite.

So here's what you can expect as counter-measures against douchery in the Kickstarter:
1. That when it goes live the manuscript will be in a “pre-print” done state. It is currently in its fifth round of aggressive editing and the two tireless editors, Robert Parker and Anthony Picaro, have done the Lord's work in whipping my lazy, indulgent 50-plus digest-sized pages of text into some coherence. There will be no getting stuck in the hard-to-maintain cycle of motivating, writing, playtesting--and avoiding your collective wrath as a result.

2. A bottom $1 or 2 “test drive” tier where you can get the artless PDF immediately (all tiers will get this but I wanted to give folks something my cheap and picky self would want.)

3. A lot of thought has gone into the project not getting bogged down in the usual morass of crowdsourcing delays (and excuses). Higher backer-tiers and stretch goals have been kept modest with an eye on being able to be put together at a reasonably quick pace. Importantly the print publication will be done through RPG Now/RPG Drive-Thru's print-on-demand with an at-cost coupon being sent to backers thus reducing the major delaying woes of printing and fulfillment. (It also means that UK backers can get domestic shipping rates.)

4. That a sizable chunk of the budget is going to pay first the talented David Lewis Johnson (who has also played in the campaign) for gorgeous art and cartography. Another quarter-percentage chunk is going to pay for the editing and layout (yay Mike Davison). While KS's skimpy restrictions don't allow you to directly fund-raise most if not all of what I take all the end of that pie will be going to pay for the filing and legal costs of reviving Hydra, my hippy-ideal game design cooperative, as a worker-owned company (more about that later in the week).
The Golden Barge cover (adventurers likely to disappear)
But enough about the hand-wringing, here are the fun things you can expect from the Dune:
A pointcrawl of the otherwordly Dunes region. Beyond the big ticket adventure sites you will find along the way include a Polevik-haunted rye field, a Zardoz head-living hermit (that scraggly fellar above), bearling pilgrimage site and other assorted madness. 

Two separate “dungeon” sites, the biomechanical, lost-in-time Golden Barge and the warring demi-gods Glittering Tower, with enough detail and portability to be slotted into an existing campaign (as can many of the adventure nodes).

A subsystem for modeling the mythic weirdness of the Dunes in the Chaos Index, a dynamic events systems. Actions of the players in the sandbox will escalate or deescalate the levels of events from blood-rain thunderstorms to an aerial invasion of magictech bubble cars.

Four competing factions operating inside the Dunes, plus guidelines for their mutual interactions.

Unique, “unlockable” player classes, spells and magic items compatible with Labyrinth Lord or really any other oldish D&D game.

15 new and unique monsters, many drawn from Slavic mythology (with a twist or three, naturally).


Some flipping great cover and interior art by David. Check out some of the early sketches.  

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mythical Wilderness

“Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish...It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.”
Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness

One of the enduring themes of neo-oldish D&D in the past five years has been the notion of dungeon as a “mythic underworld.” Philotomy the originator of the phrase stated it quite succinctly: “a mega dungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken.”

Inexplicably the theme hasn't extended itself as thoroughly to the ancient realm of the mythic: wilderness. Projecting our dreams and ideas into the wilds is a timeless thing that changes with our own times. It is nature as giver, supernatural evil, challenge, peaceful refuge, antidote to civilized decadence or whatever. The theme endures and deserves some gaming love as a motif for adventure sites.

Of course in fantasy gaming almost all wilderness is mythical in the sense that human civilization has a weak hold and things monstrous or magical often live in their bounds. But I'm talking here about the cranked up high version. The kind of wilderness that is truly otherworldly, the enchanted wood, divine mountain, sacred grove or magic garden gone feral.

Mythical Wilderness is a major running theme in the eponymous campaign. Where going into the wilds—crossing into the Weird--is going into a different physical reality. Characters can feel an electric undercurrent as they pass out of the human realm and can expect just about anything.

Not surprisingly as it comes straight out of that broken line of reasoning and play, Mythical Wilderness plays a huge role in the soon-to-be published mini-sandbox Slumbering Ursine Dunes (now in its fifth editing iteration and being run again on Google Plus if you'd like to come out and play).

The Dunes incorporates most of the following laundry list: an internal ecology and weather climate distinct from the surrounding “real world”, impossibly large dunes; magical fields; mythical demi-god guardians, and a random "weird" events system, a chaos index, that dynamically changes the sandbox with player actions.

Common Features
Internal Dynamics Trump Ecology. It may have beasts going through the motions of such things as predation or a climate cycle or the like or it may have nothing at all like that (no mundane animals, nothing consumed/shat etc). The internal logic and dynamics of the place trumps all and it is not beholden to the regular rules of either the mundane natural world or human civilization.

Unhooked from Time and Space. Time is completely relative inside it and may have any number of effects. It may work like the Faerie mounds or realms of Northwestern European folklore with years passing in the outside world for a matter of days inside. Or it may preserve residents of an ancient past or border/open into another plane of existence altogether.

Inimical or Supernatural Terrain. Trees may grow to fantasic heights or widths. Whole forests of giant gnome red cap mushrooms may bloom. Miniature mountain ranges rise, amnesia-producing rivers spring or seas of lava spread. The terrain itself may even be actively hostile to outsiders, twisted trees and vines may trip or attack.

Bends Outside Magic. Spell effects will often be different. Certain spells may be amplified, dulled or neglected in effect. Certain areas may be magically fertile or completely barren. Endless fun for the GM.

Layers of Mystery. Part of the great fun of having this kind of funhouse wilderness is that what
makes it all tick—the why and how of the whole thing-- is often something wholly inexplicable at first. Like a great dungeon or adventure site those layers get peeled away in exploration. Think of the Island in Lost here.

Powerful, Semi-Divine Boss/Force. Invariably the strange, weird, mysterious and fantastical nature of the Mythic Wilderness is due to a force or master. A terribly powerful being-- the Horned Master of the Wild Hunt, Green Man, Faerie Queen, Demonic Tree-Spirit, Batshit Archmage or what have you—that the PCs run from/parlay/barter/fight.

Anything else you think should make this list? War stories of your own creations?

Friday, July 25, 2014

What Makes a Great Sandbox Adventure Great?

For going on six months now I have been doing an on-again/off-again read/reread of favorite or suggested sandbox products. Unbidden the same driving question keeps popping into my broken brain: what particular set of things makes this product so damn good? (What makes it shitty or mediocre being an interesting and useful question for another time.)

I have something like 30 unfinished blog posts beating, beating in tell-tale-heart urgency from my draft box and some of them are various attempts to move those margin notes into a blog series. Reckon it's time to whip those recalcitrant posts into publishable shape.
Before I kick off the series though let me set the frame. Imagine the standard disclaimer here these elements are what make a particular sandbox pop me for me, your own mileage may vary blah blah blah. You will note that how I frame the criteria precludes a number of much beloved sandboxes and hex-crawls.

Lines had to be drawn.

That said I am curious to hear if you the reader were making this list what would you include? What particular thing inspires you or helps you run it? And what products would you through on your High Fidelity Top Five list?

What constitutes an exemplary sandbox adventure:
  • Main frame is a large, but bounded wilderness or outdoors environment.
  • Open ended and allows (may even explicitly plan) for different outcomes and play (though most often having loose overall goals or player motivations wired in).
  • Combines the adventure-site exploration with another deep axis (political maneuvering, interesting NPC goals, timelines or whatever) to make it multi-dimensional.
  • Site description is in my utterly subjective “sweet spot” (between terse hex crawl and baroque setting books).
  • Has distinctive color and texture.
  • Often has something that enhances or bends the system it is designed for (say mechanics for running particular natural obstacles or mythical wildernesses that bend standard rules).
  • Has a map that is either aesthetically inspiring or has interesting play choices built in. 

Sandbox adventures to be examined (ranked loosely by personal inspiration):
  • Griffin Mountain (Runequest)
  • Twilight 2000 adventures
  • Heart of the Sunken Lands (Midkemia) 
  • Vault of the Drow (AD&D)
  • John Stater's Land of Nod/Hex Crawl Chronicles
  • Pitzburke (Gamma World 2e)

Almost rans (ballpark goodish, that may or may not be thrown in):
  • Leviathan, Prison Planet, Tarsus and Beltstrike (Classic Traveller)
  • Isle of Dread (B/X)
  • Night's Dark Terror (BECMI)
  • Qelong (LoTFP)

Friday, July 11, 2014

"Fast Packs" for Boot Hill

I am a little behind in prepping for the Boot Hill Cantons mini-campaign I was going on about a few days back, but here's something of potentially wider use for folks running Boot Hill and other western campaigns. Texas-sized thanks to those beautiful broken minds on this Google Plus thread that helped me crowdsource the baroquely over-done table at the bottom. 

Starting Gear
All starting characters come with cheap but functional range clothes, bed roll, canteen, poor-quality horse and $5 to their name. Roll on the following charts for the rest of your gear.

Distinctive Piece of Finery
Pick or Roll d20 Once
1 Buckskin Jacket
2 No Name Poncho
3 Ten-Gallon Hat
4 Civil War kepi
5 Threadbare Butternut Confederate Artillery Jacket
6 Union Cavalry Uniform pants and suspenders
7 Furry Bear Coat
8 Top Hat
9 Sombrero, Campesino
10 Sombrero, Mariachi band-style
11 Bolo Tie
12 White Mexican Federale uniform, patched
13 Derby, arrow-stuck
14 Cowboy Hat, bullet ridden
15 Duster, bloody cuffed
16 Beaver Coat, full length
17 Spanish Boots, Spanish Leather
18 Fancy Mexican Riding Boots, silver spurred
19 Chaps, sequined
20 Calico Dress

Hogpieces and Other Primary Killin' Implements
Roll d10 Once
1 Repeating Rifle, 9-shot
2 Double-Barrel Shotgun
3 Fast Draw Revolver, 5-shot
4 Fast Draw Revolver, 6-shot
5 Single Action Revolver, 5-shot
6 Single Action Revolver, 6-shot
7 Buffalo Rifle
8 Civil-War Repeating Rifle
9 Repeating Carbine, 6-shot
10 Three Sticks of Dynamite, short fuse

More Killin' Dee-vices
Roll d10 or Pick Twice
1 Comanche Lance
2 Big Ass Bowie Knife
3 Throwing Knife (x2)
4 Tomahawk
5 Single-Shot Derringer (x2)
6 Two-Shot Derringer
7 Old, but Well-Oiled Cap & Ball Revolver
8 Long-Barrel Revolver
9 Calvary Sabre
10 Rusted Scatter Gun, 10% chance of it exploding when fired.

Random Crap
Roll d100 Twice
01 Dead US Marshal's Badge
02 Silver-Plated Single Action Revolver
03 Tombstone
04 Three coils of 60-foot rope
05 Small herd of goats (five)
06 Stubborn Old Mule named after an Old Sweetheart
07 Braying donkey named King's Kent
08 Silent mute “trail wife” but loyal
09 Hillbilly Musket (treat as Army Rifle)
10 A velvet-lined coffin
11 Silver whiskey flask with monogram
12 30 Silver Dollars
13 Keg of Gunpowder marked XXX
14 Ten pounds of Deer Jerky
15 Three jugs of corn liquor
16 Holy Bible with cut out derringer space
17 Gold snuff case
18 Two pounds of chewing tobacco and spitoon
19 Bottle of Scotch, peaty
20 Amputation hacksaw
21 Prison manacles and chain
22 A set of spurs pitted and rusted
23 Rattlesnake, live
24 Guitar or banjo
25 Lonesome-sounding harmonica
26 Grave-diggin' shovel
27 Pocket watch on chain, Dad's
28 The prospector's will
29 Bearer bonds (50% confederate)
30 William Blake poetry, slim volume
31 tobacco, wacky, 2 "twists"
32 Small pouch of gold dust
33 6 silver bullets
34 Assorted ladies hosiery
35 Deck of cards, marked
36 Deck of cards, unmarked
37 Piano tuning equipment (fork, hammer, mutes)
38 Old cracker tin containing several peyote buttons
39 Wooden leg, pilfered
40 Dime store novels, random assortment
41 music box
42 String of Chinese coins
43 One-horned ox
44 Dentistry kit
45 Undertaker's tools
46 Bible, natty
47 Miniature Vest Bible, steel-backed
48 Three sasquatch teeth
49 Scalps, notable figures
50 Scalps, comrades
51 Diploma, college
52 Dead or Alive Wanted poster, you
53 Dead or Alive poster, twin brother
54 Bullwhip, lovingly maintained
55 Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment, Made From Genuine Rattlesnakes
56 Pabst's Okay Special (22% alcohol, take 2 teaspoons 3x daily)
57 Dr. Wengert's Hepatica Pills
58 Dromgooles Bitters
59 The Mormon Elders' Damiana Wafers, for Strengthening the Brain, Nerves, and Sexual Organs
60 Crane's Laxative Mint Chewing Gum
61 Kickapoo Indian Sagwa Renovator
62 Jayne's Vermifuge
63 Saddlebags with secret compartments
64 Ridiculously ornate shotgun, small bore, once used by a Portuguese Duke to shoot partridges.
65 Worn but still razor-sharp skinning knife.
66 2 pound bag of coffee beans
67 Coffee hand mill
68 Autograph book
69 Ten Confederate gold pieces
70 Gold pocket watch
71 Vial of nitroglycerine with dropper
72 French's ladies' underwear, made in Chicago. Red satin & black lace
73 Cargo manifest and letters taken off a Civil War smuggler/blockade runner
74 Domino mask or red handkerchief, conceals identity perfectly
75 Crystal skull, stolen
76 Head in a box wrapped in brown paper and string
77 Last letter from a famous gunslinger
78 Hound dog, scrawny but tenacious
79 Child named William
80 Branding irons in small shapes that can be used to 'correct' brands on cattle
81 20" cast iron skillet with lid
82 Harness and tack for plough-mule
83 Three iron blades for ploughs
84 Rusty sickle
85 Five axe-heads in various sizes, just add handles
86 Sixty-two pounds of nails in an oily sack
87 Apache medicine bag
88 Three sacks of oats
89 20-pound Bag of flour
90 Plunger Detonator, 26 notches cut in box
91 Belt buckle big enough to hide a derringer behind it
92 Basket of paper roses.
93 Letter promising a job in Machine, Montana. It's a month old.
94 Knife with an elk horn handle.
95 String of Five Wild Horses, Unbroken
96-00 Upgrade Your Horse (stackable)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Hill Cantons Run Red Mini-Campaign

It's summer and I have been predictably getting a little restless and low in the batteries. Time for another mini-campaign to break up routine.

This time about I am going to swing back to the murderous rapine of that Boot Hill (second edition) one-shot I ran a while back. I'm unsure exactly how many sessions this thing will go before it ends, but I think I am going to just expand off of the last dust-up.

Keeping the same town (with a hex map of the surrounding area) and keeping a scoring system in place. Points are going to be scored either individually but with the option to share for collective activities if the players want to. For example if they rustle a herd of cattle they can take individual shares of the point take (or one player takes all if he decides to cross his fellow's and kill them off).

At any rate one player is going to win--or at least several tie. That should punch up the mayhem factor a few notches. It will be interesting to see what happens with a variant of the Prisoner's Dilemma game in place. Hell I will probably even throw in a prize for the winner.

So without any further adieu the revised Marauding Point System, local NPCs and the starting hooks. (Hex map of Cantones County coming later.)

Marauding Points
Each “combatant” killed: 50
Each scalp of a combatant taken: 10
Each non-combatant killed: -50
Each $1 of loot or bounty earned or taken: 1
Total destruction of an inhabited building: 20
Poor horse, mule, or donkey stolen: 20
Fair horse stolen: 30
Good horse stolen: 50
Excellent horse stolen: 100
Cattle per head rustled: 10
Sheep per head stolen: 5
Horse or Cattle Thief hung: 25
Getting killed: lose half your points

NPCs
Captain Ferral. Former Confederate bushwacker, discharged from the Texas Rangers for being too psycho tunes for that outfit. Meanest son of a bitch you ever met, though he never killed a woman who didn't have it comin'. Heads up the Moderators.

Jay Augustus Jissom. Semi-famous cattleman and trail-breaker of the Jissom Trail. Has set up a dry goods store in Cantones de Los Montanos to rival the monopoly of the Evo's-- and consequently touched off the Cantones County War (the Evo-backed Moderators vs. the Jissom Boys).

Claude Evo Jr. Cattle baron son of the gunned down Claude Evo. A spitting image of his father right on down to that damned bolo tie.

Frank Stripes. former doctor run out of his Mississippi practice for unwholesome phrenological studies with the craniums of dead convicts and vagabonds. Every once in a while--deep into his jug of corn liquor--he will slip up and introduce himself as “Phillip”.

Vilem “Bohemian Bill” Psanec. Fastest Moravian in the West. Laying low in the area after the Bad Rye Massacre. Has a fondness for slivovce. Officially neutral.

“Wild Bill” Hickock. Still in the area after the big shoot out drowning his sorrows in whisky and gambling. Fixin' to run on up to a little town called Deadwood.

Bat Masterson. What authorities there are over in the county seat in Broken Oath City have employed this dead-shot lawman to bring a little law and order to this side of the county. He's rumored to have a six-month contract in place before he moseys up to Dodge City.

Boss Peckerwood. Chubby, petulant former opera singer. Chief foreman at the Big Moran Mine and colder than a whore's heart on Sunday.

Paco and Tuco Ramirez. Twin brothers and “comancheros” (traders who illicitly trade with the Comanche).

Local News courtesy of Breezy Pete
Reckon that the Moderators and The Jissom Boys are hiring gunslingers seeing as they are evenly matched with five pistoleros a piece. See each of their bosses for hiring on.

It's said that the Ramirez brothers want no one less than Bohemian Bill dead but of course are too low down and yellow to do the deed themselves. They are offering 150 silver dollars to any one who cuts him down.

Speaking of the Ramirez brothers it is said one can buy just about anything contraband in their back room up to and including Comanche captives that they trade off for

Well and come to think of it speaking of killing for profit, I reckon those locked out silver miners up there want that old sow Boss Peckerwood dead too. Bet they'd be willing to hand over a few boxes of dynamite and some proceeds from the Western Federation of Miner's mutual aid fund to anyone who does him in.

Claude Evo Jr. has been outdoing his pa, no mean feat, in accumulatin' the biggest herd of longhorns this side of the Little Pecos. Everybody knows it's through rustling but who's going to stop the Big Man?