Thursday, August 30, 2012

Secrets of Spirit Island

Here's my preliminary concept for the campaign; in this bloody time of civil war, a dying warlord has a battlefield vision of the Sun warning him that blood will continue to soak the soil of the provinces until the sword of the last shogun, lost for a hundred years, is rediscovered; she promises that her brother, the Moon, will reveal the secret to a worthy champion who solves the riddle of the lost sword; the answer lies on Spirit Island.

As rumors of this unearthly vision spread around the countryside, many of the lords and daimyos scoff at the fanciful tale and continue to build their power and maneuver their forces for war.  But there are sentimentalists that send agents to the coast to secure passage to mist-shrouded Spirit Island seeking answers.  Spirit Island is rugged and has little arable land; the indigent people are gaijin or barbarians who live by fishing and hunting.  Tradition holds that in the distant past, powerful shrines to the kami and the elements once existed there, but the locations of these secret places are now lost to memory.

In this way, adventurers that explore Spirit Island might discover 5 hidden dungeons (and/or shrines and temples) each themed after an element - wood, fire, water, earth, and metal; the island is inhabited by a mix of hostile native folks and peaceful nature spirits, priests, holy sites, angry kami, duplicitous demons, vengeful ghosts, rival adventurers, spies, and bandits.  In terms of campaign play, characters that manage to explore the 5 sites would be in the mid-levels (levels 5-6), just in time for the domain play and mass combat on the mainland to become super interesting and relevant to them.

DM Notes - a defense and explanation of some of these ideas.

Putting most of the early adventuring on an island helps limit the initial creation scope; there's the coastal town or city to create as a home base, some indigenous settlements on the island, and then the wilds and dungeons themselves.

Another reason for starting with the D&D style play up front - exploration, puzzle solving, crawling ruins, fighting monsters, and so on - allows me to ease in the 'feudal Japan' cultural stuff, which helps limit info dumps and gives players time to adjust to the culture - including the DM!  Feudal Japan is like an alien planet to a western gamer, and this type of campaign risks becoming a "sword & planet" game because the setting is so removed from our regular experience… too much, 'No no no, your character wouldn't do that in this culture...', so introducing the cultural details over an extended period makes a lot of sense to me.  Heck, that reminds me - I sat in on a history seminar at Gencon that discussed these issues quite a bit, and I took a lot of notes - it warrants a post.

The politics and clans of the main islands of the country will be loosely adapted from historical sources.  By the time characters are in the mid-levels, they have reputations and are able to do the things that distinguish the Japan-inspired setting - courtly intrigue, battlefield command, duels of honor, service to a powerful lord.  Plus all the things you expect in a samurai-themed game that you see in the movies… iaijutsu showdowns, one-against-many, flashing katanas, the struggle between duty and obligation and choosing sides.

Readers here have been super supportive and helpful with these brainstorming sessions - it's much appreciated!  If I could be so bold to ask, where is a good location for "Spirit Island" and what might make a good departure port for characters wishing to sail there?  I had considered making it the main section of Hokkaido island, or something further north in the chain.  I'm sure ideas will lend themselves to me as I get more period reading under my belt.  While Hokkaido or one of the northern islands seems to fit the bill as remote, mountainous, forested, misty, and populated with potentially hostile indigenous people, there's an appeal to placing the island a bit closer to the political action, too.

It may be a few weeks before I have anything next; I'm reading Sengoku and Bushido, as well as the Turnbull book, and starting to watch Moribito (really great so far!)  I can see that I should track down a book of folklore or fairy tales that has ghost stories and tales of spirits so I can develop a sizeable alternative bestiary for the island.  I'll keep making notes and let these ideas simmer and percolate in the back of my head; many of my best ideas come after I set things down and return to them.  This is a great project for whenever I get writer's block or burnout on the Black City.

What do you think of 'Secrets of Spirit Island' as the name of the campaign?

*The picture is an example of a misty Shinto shrine on a mountain top, the kinds I envision hidden away all over Spirit Island.  The owner retains all copyrights in the picture.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Arthur and the Samurai

I've been starting to jot notes about the future Oriental Adventures setting.  I mentioned previously I wanted to mash up elements of Arthurian myth with samurai cinema.  I'm thinking the setting will be during the 'Warring States' period, when powerful families and clans vie to unite the country.  That seems to be a time that would allow mid-level adventurers to follow the 'adventurer, conqueror, king' path to gain and expand their own holdings, and it should be straightforward to get ideas from history and other RPGs.  Meanwhile, a commenter on one of the other posts (eldersprig) suggested an island as the ideal place for adventures, and I'm warming to the idea.  The main islands are rife with "mundane" politics, warfare, and strife, and the mist-shrouded island(s) off the shore is where the walls between the real world and the spirit world are thin, and monsters and ghosts roam the night.

So why would I incorporate Arthurian myth with the samurai?  Some of the central themes in Arthur, such as the ownership of Excalibur and the image of the questing knight, port very well into a samurai age constantly on the verge of civil war.  "Shogun as military dictator" sounds pejorative, but let's say the previous position was ordained, and the grant of the sword of legend symbolized the acquiescence of the heavenly world.  The death of the last shogun and the long years of civil war that have followed place the land in chaotic, violent conditions similar to pre-Arthurian England. Sentimentalists continue the quest for the legendary sword that was lost, believing that whatever shugo or daimyo proves their worth by finding the sword, will be able to unite the country.  Pragmatists continue to field their armies and maneuver politically to gain power directly.

Doomed love triangles, ala Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Isolde, port equally well.  It's not a major change to flip the axes of virtue and sin from the chivalric tales to reflect reputation and shame and oaths of loyalty challenged by love.  A character like the Fisher King also ports well, the story highlighting the problem of proper behavior versus wisdom in a hidebound society.  Figures like the Cornwall sisters (Morgan Le Fay and Morgause), powerful faeries and enchantresses, have their roles replaced by powerful but fickle spirit beings in this setting, tricksters that lead questing warriors astray.  Avalon and Faerie are replaced by the spirit world and the resident Kami.

I'm starting to like the sound of an island for other reasons; it lends itself to a 'West Marches' style campaign, where the deeper one travels on the island (or the higher one climbs the island's slopes) the more dangerous the encounters.  The strong demarcation between the mundane world and the Otherworld of the island, is aesthetically pleasing.  There appear to be many games and history books that have covered feudal Japan, making the job of adapting it for campaign use (hopefully) straightforward.  I've started reading Turnbull's Warriors of Medieval Japan, and FGU's game Bushido, to start building a knowledge base.

Here's another question for readers familiar with genres of Japanese fantasy and horror:  What are good inspirations for depictions of the mist-shrouded island and the Spirit World?  I plead near total ignorance; my exposure to Japanese Kami comes from Miyazaki films like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke or Howell's Moving Castle, and their blends of trippy spirits and general weirdness; from The Last Airbender (the cool animated show, not the awful M Night movie), with its frequent interludes where the avatar encounters the spirit world, and deals with horrible beasties like Koh the Face-Stealer.  Any suggestions on film, shows, anime, games, comics, etc, that would help populate the island with spirit creatures or provide inspiration for the Otherworld would be appreciated - thanks!  I'm hoping to track down a good book on folklore, weird tales like Kaidan, and learning more about J-horror themes.

Although I don't see how I can go wrong if I cover it with mist-shrouded shrines, ruined Japanese castles, gigantic trees, rival samurai questing for the last shogun's sword, and the occasional creepy humongous talking centipede.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review: Dungeon Command D&D Miniatures

Dungeon Command:  Sting of Lolth set

One of the big new games we came home with from Gencon was Dungeon Command.  My kiddo was obsessed with getting it after seeing one of the sets was Drow-themed (I'm beginning to think he's RA Salvatore's number one fan amongst 10 year olds), and after getting in a handful of games with the system, I can heartily endorse it.  Most of my reviews are RPG books, but this has enough nexus with D&D, Wizards of the Coast, and gaming, such that I don't mind stretching the bounds.

In Dungeon Command, you play out a miniatures battle on a board made out of dungeon tiles, snapped together like puzzle pieces.  There are configurations for 2, 3, and 4 player games, although each player needs their own tile set and figures.  Game play mixes traditional D&D miniatures style combat with a card mechanic reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering.  The whole is greater than the parts.

As a player, you take on the role of a battlefield leader, and each set gives you a choice of two personae from which to choose.  The leader cards govern things like creatures in hand, life (morale), mana (leadership ability), and each has other special abilities that modify game play.  Creatures are represented by D&D minis, with stats on creature cards.  Special game play effects are managed by "Order Cards' drawn from an Order deck.  There is a tapping mechanic for attacking or using special abilities granted by the cards.

The game has a compelling mix of physical bits that make it part board game, part card game, and part minis game.  As I said, the battlefield is built from a mix of tiles provided by each player, giving you some control over the placement of terrain and obstacles.  "Treasure chest" are seeded on the battlefield, and they can be used by creatures to heal the player's life (morale) in lieu of attacking.  Creatures have resource costs that limit how many can be in play at a time.  Cards are another expendable resource that can let creatures attack multiple times, do extra damage, dodge attacks, or perform spell-like effects.  There's a system of key words that govern which creatures can perform actions with the cards; fighters can't use spell-like cards, for instance.

Various well-known D&D spells and magic items look like they'll be making appearances as cards; Potion of Healing is a minor effect that heals a creature's life; Fireball is a standard attack card that can be cast by an Int-based creature (like the War Mage or Copper Dragon in the Cormyr set); Faerie Fire is an enchantment-type card the Drow can attach to an enemy, making that creature more vulnerable to attacks.

Dungeon Command was released in late July with two initial sets - Sting of Lolth, a Drow-themed set, and Heart of Cormyr, knights, dwarves, and mages.  I don't pay close attention to WOTC releases these days so this one flew under my radar.  5th Edition isn't supposed to be out until 2014, after all, so there are still a wide range of outcomes for that particular project.  In the meantime, here's Dungeon Command, mining the D&D brand and product identity, as well as WOTC's deep in-house expertise on card games, to build a really great game.  There are upcoming releases planned for September and November; a goblin-themed seat featuring a troll as the big monster, and an undead-themed set featuring a dracolich.  One of the best parts:  the game is non-collectible.  There's no headache around random booster packs of cards or miniatures.  Every set is a fixed roster of cards and figures.

If you like both D&D minis and card games, this is a can't miss game for you.  The cards and special abilities add a dramatic amount of strategy and ensure a high replay value.  Traditional war gamers may not enjoy the randomness and surprise created by the card mechanic; well-planned attacks can be foiled by counter cards that block damage, like a magic user's Shield spell.  If you were a heavy collector of D&D miniatures from some of the previous incarnations of the line, you probably have all the figure sculpts already; WOTC is using existing molds to fill out the new game.  Like I said, this is a clever product to fill the gap between now and 5E, since it leverages previous R&D dollars from the minis game, leverages the D&D brand for concepts, and pulls in expertise from the M:TG side of the house.  It's shrewd business.  The game offers no insight to me whether 5E will be good or bad; it does demonstrate that the designers at WOTC can still make really fun games.  This is a bit of a premium product; a single set of Dungeon Command sells for $26-$30 online, or msrp $40 if you're lucky enough to still have a brick-and-mortar game store in your area.

Any questions, fire away in the comments!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Mythos Expeditions as a D&D Campaign

See the world, visit interesting places, and loot them.

One of Pelgrane's upcoming books is called Mythos Expeditions, and it involves a central organization (in this case, Miskatonic University) sponsoring expeditions to far flung places, where a group of intrepid scholars and professors can ostensibly encounter Lovecraftian horrors.  I'm struck by how well this would work as a campaign style for an early modern D&D campaign - horror themed or otherwise.

Some of the challenges running a quasi-historical game is the need to make magic, monsters, and eldritch horrors rare and unusual - just like if you're running a Cthulhu game, whether it's modern day or 1920's.  So you push the horror to the fringes, and draw a strong demarcation between the civilized world and the realm of nightmares that exists hidden just below the surface.  There might still be monsters hiding in plain sight, but adventures involving lost cultures and ancient secrets are frequently pushed out to the fringe - rugged frontiers, where primitive cults and sleeping gods still hold sway, archaeological marvels wait to be discovered, and ancient ruins have escaped plunder.

I love the idea of putting together a similar 17th century investigative organization - scholars, academics, hermetic investigators, perhaps even the church - and letting the players act as agents and soldiers that plan and carry out the field operations of such a group in the D&D context.  It could be a mercantile venture, interested in looting ancient places and recovering lost treasures and artifacts.  The Age of Sail allows you to surface rumors all over the Caribbean and the Americas, as well as introducing ruins throughout North Africa and the mid-East, not forgetting all of the great opportunities for crumbling European castles dating back a few hundred years.

D&D is mostly about kicking down doors, stabbing monsters in the face, and getting paid.  But instead of wandering outside the local village and mugging a bunch of goblins in the woods for their coppers, the quest becomes a multi-staged voyage to the deserts of North Africa to discover the lost tomb of the Black Pharaoh Nephren-Ka.  Exotic locales, isolation, and mythic grandeur make all the difference.  Let's put some lipstick on that pig.

This isn't exactly a new idea for me; many of my undeveloped ideas have involved one campaign or another in the early modern - the Colonial Hex Crawl, Harrow Home Manor, Library of De La Torre, the Wide Area Sandbox, and so on (all labeled somewhere here on the blog).  Ultimately, the reason I haven't fully moved forward with one is that I'm still enamored with the pure hex crawl and site-based exploration that works so well in D&D's typical micro-setting.  Providing the players absolute freedom to go anywhere is much simpler when 'anywhere' is constrained to how far the characters can walk in a day.  I haven't gotten my head around finding the balance between detail and scope in a large macro setting. The tools used for Sci Fi gaming sandboxes must have the answer.  Traveller or Stars Without Number is pretty much the Age of Sail, In Spaaaaace...

If the players buy into the premise that the game is more akin to a Cthulhu game, with stronger elements of investigation and exploration, the question of agency shifts from "Which plot hook or idea do we prosecute?" to "We’re prosecuting this idea, and now we have great freedom to find the approach that works best for us."  That seems very manageable indeed, and frees the game master up to developing one intricate site-based location at a time, akin to a classic TSR 'module'.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Pent Up Reading

I've been slogging though a technical SAP manual, which I've wisely left behind on numerous vacations and breaks; however, I've also made a commitment to finish it before diving into more interesting (gaming-related) reading.  I took a look at the pile of game books accumulating in the queue, and the list is becoming daunting!  With any luck, I'll start on the fun stuff in another week.

Too much to read, never enough time - in this hobby, tell me you can't relate.

The List
For the future Oriental Adventures D&D game:
Warriors of Medieval Japan
Strongholds of the Samurai
…sundry recommendations yet to be obtained

For our next Cthulhu change of pace:
Bumps in the Night
Mysteries of Mesoamerica
Delta Green
Night's Black Agents
The Zalozhniy Quartet
Delta Green: Eyes Only

General Cool Stuff:
Weird Adventures
Other Dust
Dungeon Crawl Classics
The Monolith Beyond Space & Time
Death Love Doom
Various Osprey Pirates books...
Numerous fiction books hanging out looking even more sad than the game books... The Black Company is probably the next major fantasy book.

*Image is from "Time Enough At Last", one of the best Twilight Zones... I'll be feeling a bit like Henry Bemis if I'm not careful.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Game Master or Player?

You read gaming blogs, so here's a simple question:  Are you a game master or player?  I've added a new poll to the right.

I was talking to my players about a recent topic out here, 'The importance of game mechanics', and how the poll came in nearly 75% of the folks saying mechanics weren't that important for character differentiation.  The poll asked if the classic D&D fighter class could properly represent a knight, samurai, musketeer, horse archer, Roman legionaire, and so on, without any mechanical differentiaton like prestige classes, special abilities, feats, and so on.  I'm wondering how much the results represent a gap between how players and DM's view the question, or new school vs old school players.  Full disclosure:  I'm a DM, I run a lot of old school D&D, and I'm comfortable representing those fighting man archetypes in the game without any specialized game mechanics.  But since 2E AD&D, a sizable portion of the published works is dedicated to providing those little mechanical bits to support players that want that kind of stuff.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Cthulhu Gaming Roundup: Pelgrane and Chaosium news

Here is some hearsay and news coming out of the Pelgrane and Chaosium booths at Gencon, as well as a reader request for more Pagan Publishing news.

Pelgrane Press
I spent some time at the Pelgrane booth, and Simon Rogers, the owner of the company, is always approachable.  Rumors on the message boards have been swirling of excellent play test reports about Pelgrane's epic sized Trail of Cthulhu campaign, Eternal Lies.  They've been suggesting a publishing date of November 2012.  The new piece I heard is that Pelgrane is considering a slip case with multiple books, since boxed sets would move it into a different tax classification.  Personally, I'd much prefer a slip case for multiple books than a boxed set, so that's all good.

Kenneth Hite was at the booth and was willing to discuss his upcoming projects.  Mythos Expeditions is a campaign frame where a university group, like Miskatonic University, sponsors archaeological expeditions to far off places.  I'm stunned it's taken 30+ years for someone to build out a published campaign around this theme of exploration, and I can't overstate how much I'm looking forward to this one.  Many of Lovecraft's best stories invoke the theme; At the Mountains of Madness, The Nameless City, The Shadow Out of Time.  It should be full of ideas that are useable across game systems and genres.  Ken indicated he's wrapping up the rules, initial scenario, and scenario guidelines, and then the Pelgrane freelancers would fill out the remaining scenarios.

Being an OSR aficionado myself, I had to ask about the LOFTP adventure in Ken's queue.  (Mr Raggi roped in Ken to write an adventure as part of his hardcover LOTFP indiegogo campaign a few months back).  Ken described it as a mashup between Apocalypse Now, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; an adventure across a scarred battleground in a fantastic war between godly arcane wizards.   Sounds intriguing;  we don't have a lot of fantasy adventures with the horrors of war in the backdrop, and earth-blasting magic is a viable stand-in for the destructive power of 20th century technology.  Queue Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries".

A few other Pelgrane projects were discussed; Dreamhounds of Paris is underway, Robin Laws is writing that one.  Although I enjoyed Bookhounds, I find I'm much more interested in Pelgrane's adventures than settings, so I'm cautiously interested.  For Night's Black Agents, Ken is working on The Dracular Dossier, a book similar in theme and approach to The Armitage Files, but involving a hunt for Dracula in the modern world, using NBA's spy thriller rules set.  Gareth Hanrahan will take it forward.  My need to mash up Delta Green and Night's Black Agents is currently a faint siren song in a distant room; soon it will be an unavoidable symphony, driving me to madness.  I better start reading Night's Black Agents in earnest.

Chaosium News
The big news is that Chaosium has launched a Kickstarter.  A few days ago, they announced a push to get Horror on the Orient Express, a classic boxed set campaign that's been out of print for 20+ years, updated and back in circulation.  View it here:  Orient Express Kickstarter.  They've neared $40k in two days with a month and a half to go, doubling their $20k goal.  Good to see.

I never owned Orient Express myself, so it'll be excellent to get a shiny new copy of one of Chaosium's classic campaigns.  More importantly, it shows that Chaosium is paying attention to the game-o-sphere and willing to crowd fund some much-sought after reprints.  One can only hope an updated, deluxe version of Beyond the Mountains of Madness is next in the queue.  Alas, Orient Express is targeted to be ready for Gencon 2013, a year away.  Better funding won't necessarily improve their production times.

Pagan Publishing
The guys at the Pagan booth were chatty and willing to talk about various Delta Green campaigns and adventures, but very noncommittal about the timing of the reboot.  (On various podcasts and going back to Gencon 2011, Pagan has been discussing a new version of Delta Green that updates the setting for the post-911 world scene and the USA's 'War on Terror').  My appeal to readers is whether anyone made it to the Pagan Publishing seminar Saturday night and could post some news?  My group hit the road after dinner Saturday, and I had to miss it; there's still a chance it was recorded and will make it out on a podcast feed.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Gencon 2012 Retrospective

I'm still a bit dazed from the whirlwind of Gencon, and since we pulled an all-nighter driving home yesterday, it'll take a day or so to get back to normal.  I visited the OSR booth on Thursday, mainly to say hi to Tavis and find out what were the plans for ACKS at Gencon.  We never did get to drop in on any ACKS games; Bo and I had our kiddos along, and the timing never worked out for us to leave them at the hotel with one of the other mom's that came on the trip.  I didn't fit in any Black City games either;  we ended up doing a massive late night game of Zombie Munchkin instead.  There were a bunch of OSR books I was hoping to see at the OSR booth, but none of them were there this year, so there are no OSR Gencon purchases to hype; my hopes got up when I saw Frog God stuff at the OSR booth this year, but the one I really wanted, The Black Monastery, was notably absent.

I briefly met Roger from Roles, Rules, and Rolls while at the OSR booth, and ran into Trey (author of Weird Adventures) while at a history seminar at the convention.  This meet up was fairly serendipitous - I had listened to one of Trey's round tables on G+ (it was on using "America as a fantasy setting") and he's got a distinctive mid-Southern accent - I want to say, Virginia or Tennessee.  We were sitting right next to each other at the seminar anonymously, and when the guy nearby asked a question, I realized it was Trey from Weird Adventures sitting right there.  Funny stuff.  It's always a pleasure to put a face and a human presence with the online persona.

Night's Black Agents:  Keep your blood on the inside
I had a chance to visit Pelgrane Press on Thursday before things got too busy, and Kenneth Hite graciously allowed me to interrogate question him on some upcoming books he's writing.  I'll get those notes together tomorrow.  I picked up my pre-order of Night's Black Agents and the Zalozhniy Quartet (a mini-campaign for the game) and got a picture of the offspring with the author.  It was a moment of  celebrity author fandomania:

Kenneth Hite and the kid:  celebrity fandom moment
Pagan had a wide range of products, including a bunch of hard-to-find hard backs of Delta Green.  I guess with the move to RPG Now, they're breaking the secret stash out of Area 51.  I was able to get Delta Green, Delta Green Eyes Only, Mysteries of Mesoamerica, and Bumps in the Night, the latter two featuring collections of short scenarios.  I met Greg Stolze and had a nice conversation with Scott Glancy at the booth.  One can't laud the Delta Green setting enough, so expect a review or retrospective this week as well as a discussion of the other books.

Awesome Delta Green and horror goodness
I tried to ignore WOTC as much as feasible, but the offspring is struck with Drizz't-love, and we needed to visit the booth and get him some pictures of the giant Drizz't statue and Lolth statues.  It was nigh impossible to drop in on a 5E play test without waiting a few hours on line (assuming you didn't pre-register for it).  We dropped in a few times but split after discouragement by WOTC's staff.  A few guys in our group did tough out the long waits for a drop-in 5E play test, and confirmed it featured super-heroic characters similar in power to 4E guys.  That's probably old news to readers, but I'm trying not to pay too much attention to D&D Next and keep an open mind until books actually get printed - assuming it's going to use actual books, and not another weird online subscription.

One thing new was Dungeon Command, a new D&D miniatures game promulgated at the WOTC booth.  I was dubious about it, but the kiddo insisted on spending some of his own cash to pick it up (the Drow themed starter sealed the deal for him), and it's actually really, really good.  It blends miniatures gaming with a Magic the Gathering style card deck.  If you have a lot of the previous D&D minis, the figures are all repaints of existing sculpts.  Nonetheless, Dungeon Command was one of the surprises of the convention for me, and I'm glad the kiddo got it - we'll have a ton of fun playing.  Plus, he found it for $25 in the dealer hall (WOTC was selling them for $40).  It's non-collectible, too, which is a bonus.  Expect a detailed review.
Dungeon Command:  DDM meets M:TG
I spent a lot more time in the dealer hall checking out board games this year, including extended plays of Star Trek Settlers of Cataan, and the 4E version of Talisman; I ended up getting Trek Settlers for Wifey, as she's a closet Trekkie.  Bo and I also got in a bunch of Heroclix games with the kiddos in the main hall.  Wizkids really ran a good convention this year; there were minimal lines at their events and they were consistently sitting nearly 400 people at a time.  Plus, the volunteers and judges were super nice to the kids.  Below are some of the great pieces we got in the sealed events that we needed for our collection of plastic men in capes and tights.

Heroclix:  plastic toy superhero men!
More details to come this week as I get caught up with work (and sleep).

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

An Approach to Horror in D&D

… Take your favorite Call of Cthulhu scenarios, file off the serials numbers, and transplant it into your favorite quasi-historical D&D setting.

Your first thought is likely, 'Well duh, you needed a fancy blog to figure that out, genius?'  Yes, apparently I did.  It started as a bit of dissatisfaction with the horror elements in the Black City campaign, some introspection, and then a case of WWCD (What would Chaosium Do?)  How would I change up the Black City if I were writing it as a Call of Cthulhu scenario for Chaosium, versus a megadungeon for D&D?  Sometimes you need to step outside of your frame of reference to get that new perspective.

It would make an interesting exercise to compare/contrast between the tropes of a traditional D&D scenario vs a traditional horror scenario.  Most of it comes down to an unwavering commitment to the proper atmosphere in the horror setting, and eliminating the D&D tropes that undermine horror.

When I get back from Gencon, I'm going to rifle through my Chaosium collection and look at which scenarios could port well into a D&D game, and attempt to distill the defining elements of the two genres.  I'm not planning on relaunching our campaign as a horror game anytime soon, but it'll be an interesting thought experiment, and hopefully give me some touchstones for a future effort (like Harrowhome).  Besides, I'm starting to see some reviews popping up for Death Love Doom (and here) the latest Raggi piece, and it seems clear he's embraced the horror.  I'm looking forward to the print version.

Black City fans:  No, I'm not actually disappointed with the Black City; it's turning out to be a kick-ass D&D campaign, and it holds true to many of D&D's tropes and expectations, albeit in an unusual setting.  Level 2, the Warrens of Decay, is absolutely nuts, and I really love it.  But one of my goals starting out was to do a megadungeon with a horror theme, and the thought has been growing in the back of my mind that my frame of reference wasn't right - the overarching atmosphere is adventure and exploration.  So while the dungeon has explored interesting new ground regarding 'megadungeon technology', it hasn't brought me as close as I wanted to merging the genres of horror and fantasy in a megadungeon setting.

Okay - I'm off to Gencon.  I'll be back in the webosphere sometime next week and hope to develop these ideas further.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bathos and Absurdity, Black City Game 7

Maybe it's just me, but the thought of a treasure-filled dungeon sitting right outside the village is a bit dissonant; if all that treasure is nearby, why hasn't someone else taken it?  If the monsters are so dangerous, why haven't they eaten the villagers?  It goes to the question of verisimilitude; lost tombs and ancient ruins are remote, and it's hazardous to get to them.  When the dungeon is on a frozen island in the arctic circle, fraught with a perilous sea journey, it stands to reason not everyone would even survive the journey to the island.  Else the place would have been plundered long ago.

I realize there are interesting alternatives to the remote dungeon; the idea of a newly opened dungeon, with adventurers flocking like gold miners to the site of the latest gold rush, is rife with possibilities.  The island of Thule, where the Black City is located, is distant, dangerous, and has the mystique of a gold rush.  The player characters are only one group amongst the dozens and dozens of competing adventuring parties trying to wrest wealth from the recently discovered ruins.  Fellow adventurers are often more dangerous than the monsters.

I did consider the idea of making the trip to the island itself something less than an automatic success for players, weighing the concept here: Game Mastering Dilemma:  Sinking the Player's Ship.  I ultimately decided to start all new parties at the island.  Nonetheless, our last game gave me a chance to observe what it's like when someone dies randomly on the way to the dungeon.

I greatly enjoyed a recent post over at Noism's place, lauding the way bathos and absurdity create stories that are often far more interesting than crafted narratives:  On Bathos.  And so, I proffer to you a vignette from our latest game, Black City Session 7, featuring a moment of absurdity.

The Black City consists of miles of tumbled cyclopean ruins choked with ice, extant spires, and misty vales.  Eager parties of excavators head off amongst the towering basalt blocks, many never to be seen again.  Despite the vastness of the surface, the players have been obsessed with the under city.  Beneath the ruins, a network of wide subway tunnels connect distant complexes beneath the city.  The players have cleared one mini-dungeon and found two others, exploring only a fraction of the tunnels.

Here's the problem:  the main subway passage they follow is split by a chasm, requiring one to jump into mid-air, grabbing a rope swing, and swinging across to the other side of the 10' chasm.  This is no mean feat, wearing mail armor, carrying a shield and weapon, with a fully loaded backpack.  Characters have to roll a twenty sided die, with a 5% chance of missing their grip and requiring a saving throw to avoid the chasm.  Strength bonuses apply.

This time around, Molnar, one of the group's priests, rolled a natural one when it came time for his jump attempt.  His 5 strength proffered no assistance.  The table grew silent as the player picked up his d20, and all waited with solemn anticipation as Molnar failed his saving throw, and the other characters watched with horror as the cleric plunged into the abyss, lost forever.

Understand, there are options.  The players have frequently discussed hauling lumber into the tunnels and building a bridge across the chasm.  They've used harnesses in the past, but the risk of wandering monsters while carefully tying and untying each member to cross the chasm convinced them to use haste; you may recall a nail-biting scene some weeks ago when half the group made it across, but then a trio of moaning shamblers staggered out of the darkness behind the stragglers, killing multiple characters left behind before Mustafa took care of business.  Their current solution is to find an alternate way to descend into the dungeons from the surface, so they don't have to walk miles in the under city; they've been tantalizingly close at times to finding such an alternate entrance.

Be that as it may, the player handed me Molnar's sheet, promoted a retainer to full player character status, and marched onward.  It's only a game, after all, and the luck of the dice and the randomness and absurdity of survival are very much inherent to the allure.

This report is waxing long, so I'll cover the rest briefly.  I often feel there is a direct relationship between player carelessness and the number of players at the table; the larger the group, the less careful the players are when they're exploring.  Small groups are hyper-focused on their own survival.  We had our full crew this time, 7 players, and the guys were nonchalant while searching some dismembered corpses, rudely surprised when the corpses started ankle-biting as hungry gjenganger.  They sent the dwarf into one tunnel of an animal's nest, neglecting to guard the other two tunnels (from which the remaining giant shrews swarmed out at them).   They made camp in one of the rooms near the first junction, but left all traces of a recent battle right outside the room, alerting a hunting party of berserkers to the presence of their encampment.  And so it went.  I don’t mean to sound so critical, as the only character lost on the evening was Molnar down the chasm.  Anyone else feel like larger groups are a little less focused and careful?

Here was an interesting development, though; the group camped in the dungeon.  For the first 6 sessions, they were so careful to start and end every adventure on the surface, making their way back to Trade Town and their ship.  A popular rumor in town was that anyone who stayed in the dungeon could be affected by "dungeon madness", and the psychotic berserkers they met deeper in the dungeons were the remnants of groups that stayed in the dungeon too long, succumbing to the place's malign influence.  Such men never returned to civilization again.  Let's see what happens to the players next time when they finish their night's rest, shall we?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Recent Game Books, and Gencon

Lazy post today; here are some recent gaming treasures that came in the mail.  I had been holding out to get a copy of Weird Adventures at Gencon, but Brendan offered one during the LOTFP campaign, and I'm delighted to finally get a chance to read it - it looks fantastic.  Thanks Brendan!

I loved the Red Tide Setting and its use of tags to quickly generate locations, so I was pretty interested to see Sine Nomine adapt Stars Without Number (and the tag system), for a grittier post-apocalyptic setting - Other Dust.  That one just came in, after RPG Now had it on sale a week or so ago.

The DCC RPG hype was too much, and the thought of having to wait until next year when the book is reprinted convinced me to help them clear out the warehouse sooner.  I don't know how it would play in The Black City, but I'm certainly open to checking it out.  My concern is the heavy use of tables during play might slow the game too much, so a playtest is warranted.  I have high hopes!

These were my top 3 wish list books before Gencon, so that leaves me looking a little further down the list for items to seek out while I'm in Indy.  Anyone familiar with An Echo Resounding, the mass-combat and domain book for Red Tide?  I'm hoping to leaf through a copy at the OSR booth and make a call on it.  I may also look for the Mongoose hard cover of Stars Without Number, if they have any.  My recent interest in feudal Japan could have me seeking for an old print copy of Bushido, but its probably easier just to get the PDF - I don't know even know if vendors bring out-of-print books.  I didn't spend too much time in the dealer's room last time. (Edit:  Apparently FGU is still selling it new, too!).  I'll be picking up a copy of Night's Black Agents over by the Pelgrane booth, and seeing what kind of Trail of Cthulhu goodies they have that I'm missing.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

LOTFP does Oriental Adventures

How would you go about running Oriental Adventures using a simple, BX D&D type system? That is the opportunity I'm considering.  ACKS has a toolbox for building new character classes (in the as yet unreleased Player's Guide), which I plan to use to create detailed versions of the Oriental Adventures classes, as an exercise to get practice using the ACKS stuff.  For now, let's look at them in a simple BX system.  I'm using the LOTFP flavor of a classic D&D style game for reasons that will be evident.

In LOTFP, the fighter is the preeminent combat class, quickly surpassing everyone else in the ability to kill things dead with sharp objects.  Samurai are represented as fighters with o-yoroi armor and daisho - the matching swords.  If a player wants to tell me he or she is also good at calligraphy, haiku, etiquette, and performing the tea ceremony, that's fine.  The game will be about stabbing monsters in the face and recovering loot like regular D&D, but we can make systems on the fly if a player feels the need to win a poetry contest or something in between trips to the ruins.

Ashigaru, the footsoldiers of the time, are fighters.  Kensai, traveling masters of the sword - you got it - also fighters.  OA has a class called "bushi" for peasant warriors, they sound a lot like ashigaru to me, but it doesn't matter, because they're also... fighters.

Warrior monks, sohei, and yamabushi were warriors dedicated to defending temples and monasteries.  They swing weapons and kill things dead - they're also fighters.

Clerics in the setting are priests.  I don't know that it really matters whether the primary religions (assuming a faux-historical setting) are modeled after Shinto, Shugendo, Buddhism, or something different; the setting will have Kami, a spirit world, and clerics are clerics are clerics.  If a cleric player wants to call himself a "shugenja" because they saw that title in another game system, that's fantastic - shugenja are also clerics.

Magic Users:
I'll just assume for now there are sorcerous figures in Japanese mythology and folklore like the Western archetype, and that'll be fine.  I don't know where the inspiration for the Wu-Jen came from, but creating a d100 list of interesting taboos is too cool to pass up.  Wu-jen are magic users.

Specialist (Thief):
LOTFP really shines for modeling thief characters in this kind of setting, using the specialist class.  If you dress in black pajamas and kill people, you're a specialist.  If you cover your arms in tattoos and work for the mob, loyal to an oyabun, you're also a specialist.  The guys in the pajamas are ninjas, the guys with the tattoos are yakuza, and they both sneak around and kill people.

On a more serious note, the flexible skills in LOTFP let you focus more points into climb, stealth, and sneak attack, modeling the stereotypical ninja just fine; the rest is fancy specialized gear, and those black jammies that were popularized in movies from the 80's.  The yakuza flavored-thief would focus a bit more on the other specialist skills, like search and tinker and sleight of hand.

Demihuman Classes:
The 1E Oriental Adventures book presented a couple of ideas for non-human classes - Hengeyokai, Korobokuru, and Spirit-Folk.  I'm eminently lazy, and also don't get excited about designing classes and races, so the laziest approach is to take a virtual sharpie marker and cross out "Dwarf" and write in Korobokuru; replace Halfling with Hengeyokai;  replace Elf with Spirit-Folk; voila, they run mostly like the BX or LOTFP equivalents - albeit with heavily changed flavor text, culture, and appearance.  When I look at the ACKS class design stuff, I'll l put together unique race classes for these guys.

Other candidates could be 'rat people' - anyone remember the rat people ninjas from Magic the Gathering's Kamigawa block?  Maybe it's all a big Ninja Mutant Turtle in-joke.  But 'rat people' would be a good fit for the Halfling replacement - stealthy and difficult to kill - and it would leave the Hengeyokai as a monster race.  I'd consider crow people too, ie, Tengu, but I'd also prefer to keep them as potential monsters.

New Systems:
I don’t think any new systems are absolutely necessary for using BX D&D or LOTFP in an Asian setting, but a pair of ideas come to mind, and I'm sure I'll be thinking about them in the weeks ahead.

First up is an approach to implementing honor or reputation.  It was a big part of Oriental Adventures, and it seemed to be important to L5R, too.  I plan on picking up Bushido and some of the other recommendations in the comments of the other thread, and seeing if any simple systems make sense to me.  There's also a S&W game that went down this path, Ruins & Ronin, it may have something on honor as well.  My expectation is that I'd use honor or reputation as another type of charisma modifier for reaction rolls.

The other one is martial arts. Regardless of the inherent coolness in sumo or jujitsu, I don’t see them moving the dial on a battlefield - and yet, early jujitsu did grow out of the need to disarm, trip, throw, and toss armored opponents and finish them off on the ground with a knife, the tanto replacing the misericorde of western chivalry.  The player expectation is that ninjas and samurai and warrior monks will be able to toss people around with their mad skills when the need arises.

Just off the cuff, I'd consider treating unarmed attacks just like any other version of D&D, but using the pip system (2 in 6, 3 in 6, etc) to let a player roll a d6 when they make a successful unarmed attack; if they make their skill check, they can convert their unarmed damage to lethal damage (if using a hard style martial art) or add a kicker like a trip, throw, knockback, or hold, if using a soft style.  It seems like that would be easy to implement and works with the LOTFP skill system.  All of the amazing supernatural abilities you see in Kung Fu Theater (Eagle Claw! Dim Mak Death Touch!) would be omitted for now - no Shaolin Temples here.

Next Steps
I came to a recent epiphany on my approach to blending D&D and Horror; the ideas are still taking shape in my mind, but it would dramatically change my approach to Harrow Home Manor, and explain some things about the evolution of The Black City campaign.

I don't get excited about rules and house rules and minor tweaks; the OSR world is flooded with them, everyone has their own (like opinions), they're valuable and sometimes necessary, but just not that sexy.  That's why my first approach is always, "How do I adapt something that's already built (like BX or LOTFP) and just use it in the new context?"  Setting is our final frontier.  That's the challenge here, to create a setting that works with D&D's tropes and expectations, but takes place in a fantastic version of feudal Japan.  What a fun problem.  First up:  building up my library and getting in the required reading; my current "knowledge base", such as it is, comes from Kurosawa films and samurai cinema, Miyazaki movies, and a passing interest in martial arts (primarily judo and jujitsu).  Time to get historical!

Edit:  I thought of this after posting - didn't L5R have a 'rat humanoid' race?  I don't have any L5R books, but that seems really familiar to me - I'll check it out when I get the chance.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Importance of Mechanics

For purposes of D&D, what's the difference between a Norman knight, a viking, a samurai, a Roman centurion?  What if we throw a muskeeter in the mix, a Mongolian horse archer, and a Hospitaler?

Is there something that prevents a player from being "knightly" because both the knight and the viking are represented by the fighter class?

I love this question with regards to the fighter, because the convergence of technology and tactics has created great variations in the fighting men of world history, and the differences are so easy for us to visualize.  The evolution of D&D from its original vision has involved a long line of add-ons and extensions to create mechanical differentiation among character classes - new classes and sub-classes, secondary skills, kits, feats, prestige classes, and so on.

It's a topical question for me - I'm thinking over what a game in an Oriental Adventures setting would look like using a BX style of rules, and I have a pretty good idea how I'd handle archetypes like the samurai, the bushi, the kensai, the warrior monk:  you're all fighters.  You wear different armor, use different weapons, but at the end of the day, you all get paid to slug it out with the other guy.  My work here is done.

And yet... if we run an Asian themed game using LOTFP, it has that nifty d6-based skill system, it'd be so easy to add some skills to reinforce the in-game flavor.  If we ran it with ACKS, the upcoming player's guide is filled with class-building guidelines; one could probably convert the contents of Oriental Adventures to classes balanced with ACKS.  It's so easy to start sliding down that slope - "story elements should be supported mechanically so players feel like their character can do something different or exclusive".

I'm just using the fighter as an accessible example, you can do the same thing with every class.  Is the illusionist necessary?  Isn't an assassin just a guy that kills people for money?  Does the wu-jen really need a separate spell list?  And so on.

Seems like a good time for a new poll:  How important are game mechanics versus flavor?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hopped up on Vamp-Juice

My setting work has taken a steep drop off the past few weeks.  I usually wake up pretty early, getting in an hour or so of writing before work, but I've been sleeping in later and later.  It's the stupid HBO True Blood show - after 4-5 years, I finally started watching it and have been binging on that supernatural soap opera, replete with it's lurid southern gothic themes and trashy sex scenes.

I don't talk about it much on the blog, this mostly being a chronicle of my reunion with old school D&D the past decade, but in the 90's I was predominantly a World of Darkness referee, running a bunch of campaigns.  I had pretty much moved on from the whole 'angst-ridden, unwitting supernatural monster thing', and hadn't shown much interest in the HBO series, but Wifey recently watched the whole thing and she's been a relentless pusher.

The series watches like someone novelized their Vampire: the Masquerade (V:tM) campaign - it’s a mash up of the World of Darkness, urban fantasy soap opera, and dime-store romance.  And yet, it's got an intoxicating blend of vampire politics, werewolves, witches, fairies, shapechangers, ghosts, and random mythological things that immediately conjures those years of running V:tM.  The lure of nostalgia is strong.

Of course, my gaming groups back then were mixed gender, we were younger club-goers hitting the goth-industrial scene on a weekly basis, we had the bloom of youth, and vampires were new and cool.  I picture my current group of middle-aged, suburban dads sitting around the table (with fake vampire teeth, no less) pretending to be angst-ridden vampires wrestling to keep their humanity, and it's cringe-worthy.  Some things are perhaps best left to the past.

Still, with Gen Con looming, I can't help but wonder if I should wander by the White Wolf area and see how things are going these days.  I remember reading earlier in the year that they'd put together a 20th year anniversary edition of V:tM that returned the game to its roots.  Maybe I could just take a peek, for the nostalgia.  Surely I wouldn't buy... too many copies of it.  In the meantime, I'll catch you later - I still have some episodes to watch.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cherry blossoms and ashes

One of my gaming bucket list items is to eventually run a good Asian-themed D&D game.  I love the interchange between Western tropes and samurai cinema, the way you can do Shakespeare in feudal Japan (Ran) or draw parallels between American westerns and the movies of Kurosawa (The Magnificent Seven).  One of the ideas in my back pocket is to transpose elements of Arthurian myth, like the Grail Quest, or the Excalibur story (more the sword in the stone than the Lady in the Lake), into a D&D campaign set in the far east.

Here’s a simple premise - perhaps during the early medieval period, when native peoples like the Ainu of Japan were being driven out, a massive cataclysm was brought down on the imperial palace as the natives unleashed the fury of their gods, or the primal spirits punished the ruling caste for hubris; the imperial castle was destroyed, the surrounding province was turned into a wasteland, the remnants of the populace in that area are monsters - transformed into goblins, enslaved by demons, hateful shades of the spirit world, it could be any number of things.  The legendary sword of the last legitimate shogun is lost beneath the ruins of the old castle (perhaps even stuck in a stone anvil awaiting the next shogun…)

Bam!  You have a kind of leaderless chaos in the larger setting, where the remaining noble families vie to make their lord and head the new regent, but they all secretly fear if the sword of truth were recovered, everyone would unite behind the rightful shogun.  Small groups that represent the clans and families, essentially parties of adventurers, venture into the forsaken province and scour the ruined castles and dungeons to find clues to the location of the lost sword.  Everyone hopes to be worthy of recovering it, thus proving their worth to the emperor back in the new capital; the possessor would be named shogun.  It's as if the movie Excalbur has a love-child with The Hidden Fortress and you throw in a hex crawl and megadungeon.

One thing I'm learning in The Black City campaign, I love the ambiguity of competing human encounters, and the scheme here would let the DM populate the forsaken province with bandits, brigands, rival adventuring parties, hostile samurai, enemy ninja, and so forth.

It's essentially a limited sandbox, because one thing I struggle with when thinking about a sandbox game based in a pseudo-historical feudal Japan is whether it would pass 'the tavern test'.  The group members are probably servants of a daimyo, and they have autonomy as long as they're doing the larger meta-quest given as a mission by the boss - finding the lost sword of truth.  But how much personal liberty did a samurai have during different periods of feudal Japan?  How much must credulity be stretched to have a mixed caste party?

I don't even know if a campaign like this even has "taverns", per se:  "Ahem, can I have your attention?  I am Noboru-san, and my friend the Korobokuru and I would like to hire a pair of ninjas and a Wu-Jen (er, Shugenja) to go with us into the forsaken lands.  Are there any ninjas for hire having a drink here?"  Pssst:  the two guys in the corner dressed in black ninjutsu gi's look interested.  No wait, they're just struggling drinking without taking off their masks.  Joking aside, the whole premise of The Seven Samurai is hiring guys to defend a village from bandits, which implied a degree of freedom to adventure and places to hire mercenaries, so maybe it's not that far off.

Yeah, so I don't know much (anything) about Japanese medieval society and the social classes, beyond what you see in movies, so I have to plead temporary (but cure-able) ignorance.  I'm sure I'll be reading the related Osprey/Turnbull books I recently got.  Either way, the limited scope sandbox is a way to finesse a setting with a rigid caste system while giving the players autonomy on the frontier where they can carry out their explorations.  The trick is making something that meets the needs of traditional D&D - exploration, solving puzzles, resource planning, tactics, monsters.  If I wanted it to be all tea ceremonies and how good is your calligraphy… well, there are already games for that kind of excitement.

I don't have a name yet for this hypothetical setting… chances are it would be done using a BX type game like LOTFP or ACKS, I'd just want to add better unarmed martial arts to fit my preferences (I'm a big fan of judo and the predecessor arts, jujitsu and aikijutsu) and a mechanic to track reputation.  Some of that could even be borrowed from AD&D's Oriental Adventures.  I really like the modern trend towards "a day in the life…" history books, but haven't read a good one for feudal Japan (yet).  I've heard the old FGU game "Bushido" actually did a good job of laying out a setting, so I'll check that out as well.  I'm not expecting to do much around this setting soon, there's a bit of background reading and research to do first and I'm doing a ton on the Black City, but it's another one on the radar.