Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: Bumps in the Night

Last year at Gencon, I was able to pick up a copy of Bumps in the Night while visiting the Pagan Publishing booth.  I've been getting caught up on my Cthulhu reading lately, which means I'll be getting a few more reviews out in the next few weeks.  This one is written by John H Crowe III, a long time Pagan Publishing author.

The book is nicely done - it's a 118 page soft cover with an attractive layout and evocative black and grey art.  It features five scenarios; "The Westerfield Incident", "The Vengeful Dead", "The Bitter Venom of the Gods", "Curse of the Screaming Skull", and "An Unsettled Mind".  Instead of highlighting cosmic horror, these scenarios feature paranormal activities and occult monsters from folklore and mythology.

These scenarios excel in terms of structure and presentation.  One byproduct of spending so much time out here amongst the OSR D&D blogs is an appreciation for module structure and how it corresponds to game-play at the table.  I don't see a lot of the same analysis happening in other genres to land on the best structures for a scenario.  Horror has an agenda; the horror is out there doing bad things, and the player characters are frequently in a reactive role.  It can be challenging to balance the needs of free agency with the time pressure inherent in the horror genre while avoiding a linear design.

Here, each scenario is presented as a situation, with background facts that can be learned through investigation, and an overview of the locales and key actors, as required.  But each scenario runs on its own clock, and the horror is going to progress if the players don't intervene.  This is my platonic sweet spot for a horror scenario - give me a handful of interesting elements, a horror sandbox of sorts, and then give me some kind of event structure that defines what the horror is going to do, and then push the start button on the countdown.

I'm simplifying, of course; the writer provides antagonist reactions to some of the common ploys investigators may try to give the Keeper more guidance, but the underlying structure of each scenario is a simple investigative sandbox + event timeline.  It's really well done.

Like I said, the monsters aren’t the archetypal tentacle horrors of the Mythos, but run a gamut from native American vampires to Mesopotamian demons.  In most of the scenarios, there are enough red herrings to keep the players on their toes, and the monsters themselves appear under unusual or interesting circumstances.

If you play Call of Cthulhu, the Pagan Publishing stuff is already must-own, and Bumps in the Night slides in there as another high quality piece in a long line of strong books.  They seem to be slowly digitizing their back catalog, so hopefully that means some of this author's other works will reach a wider audience through PDF some day - Coming Full Circle and Mortal Coils are both excellent as well.  For now, you can only get this one in print over at Arkham Bazaar:  Bumps in the Night.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

For Where Your Treasure is, There Your Heart Will Be Also

There is an interplay between rules and settings and scenarios that's been on my mind lately.  It's not an issue with strongly themed game systems that are closely aligned to their default setting and play style, but D&D-type games are ciphers, reflective mirrors, blank pages on which to scribe a unique vision, and it's fair to ask the question - what is your particular game really about?

I'm coming at this somewhat stream of conscious and still organizing my thoughts, so perhaps another tact is in order:  Consider the D&D retroclone system, ACKS - Adventurer Conqueror King.  Part of the unique niche ACKS has carved out in the fantasy space is having top-to-bottom balanced economics, domain management, trade rules, and costs for armies and kingdoms.  A Dungeon Master that puts all that time and effort into detailing those particular characteristics for the baronies and kingdoms in their sandbox game clearly feels the information is important and relevant.  A player there should assume that as their characters move into the mid and high levels, they'll be expected to gain land, deal with economics and domain management, and build armies.  The NPCs will be coming for them with armies of their own!

The converse is the DM that spends all their time writing intricate dungeons, and barely spares a page of notes for the home base, the surrounding countryside, or the politics outside of the dungeon.  Better be prepared for week after week of dungeon crawling, in that kind of campaign.

Horror adventures are usually deep on detail and atmosphere.  They tend to have intricate back stories leading to a big reveal.  They are the opposite of the sparsely described (but vast) dungeon.  In fact - that's another kind of test to consider for your writing style - are the adventures broad horizontally, meaning the DM has created  a large adventure, sparsely detailed, or are they vertical; a narrow scope, but deeply detailed with multiple layers of secrets centered around a small area?  And how do these choices reflect the default activity you expect of the players?

It seems to me there's some kind of rule around writing that should help inform the discussion, but I'm not remembering it.  Not quite Chekhov's gun, but something along the lines of it - such as, why would you do a conventional  story in an oddball setting, unless the sci fi or fantasy elements were critical to the telling?

I'm sure someone out there reading this is a writer, and they'll be able to express this as a well-known principle.

Common wisdom amongst DM's and game masters is to only prepare what you need.  That's good, useful advice.  However, let's take it a step further, and only prepare what your game is about.  Perhaps that's already implied, but the idea is to force an additional layer of self-reflection and answer the question, what is your game about, anyway?  Is it dungeon crawling?  Then ask yourself what is the bare minimum in terms of a setting you can get away with to make the best framework for dungeon crawling, and spend the rest of your time on making fantastic dungeons.

I tend to think this is why I dislike the Sword & Planet genre; I'd rather focus my time on things like interesting adventures, and skip all the parts about creating (and then narrating) alien cultures and why they do things differently there.

How does this apply to a horror themed fantasy game?  It pushes you towards a real world setting more often than not.  Using a pseudo-historical setting means that no energy is diverted towards setting, when the dictates of the genre already require a huge outlay of effort creating the detailed mysteries.  The real world offers everything you need for backstory and all your creative work can go into the horror side of things.

Of course, the bit that cooks my brain here on a lazy Saturday afternoon is this:  the answer to the question, "what is your game about", has a tendency to change over the course of a campaign, doesn't it?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Game Report 24: The Decapitated Oracle!

Felt's interpretation of the Decapitated Oracle

It's been a few weeks since our last game.  It's "fantasy baseball drafting season" the past few weeks, so that makes it a little harder to keep a weekly gaming schedule, since I've had a couple of drafts to prepare.  However, looks like we'll be good to have another game this weekend.

When last we left the Spitsberg Pirates, they were huddled in an access tunnel that branched off a deep vertical shaft.  They needed to throw grapples up to the top of the shaft and climb up, getting to the first floor of the "Tower of Pain" from the dungeon level.  The overall goal was a rescue mission, hoping to find the captain of another ship and return him for a nice fee (and some favors).

There was a problem: the first level of the tower was inhabited by bizarre, headless creatures, sitting around and stuffing mushroom stalks into their gaping 'belly mouths'.  I'm calling them, prosaically, "headless servitors".

The group's solution was Stinking Cloud; Timur would gas the first level, then the fighters would toss grapples and start climbing like mad once the smell started to clear, hoping the guards were disabled and nauseous enough for the assault to gain a foothold.  The players spent time outlining their order of battle and planning the assault, and away they went.

The Cloud worked, and the servitors were off-balance enough that only a few responded when the first two fighters clambered over the side of the shaft.  They quickly formed a defensive front that let other party members climb over the lip behind them.  The servitors had a vicious bite attack that triggered whenever their hooked claw scored a hit and pulled someone towards the yawning belly-mouth, but beyond that, they were just big piles of hit points and assembled parts.  The group beat them down.

There was an elevator to the second floor of the tower, and this presented another tactical challenge - only 4-5 characters could fit on the small elevator platform at a time.  Without knowing what was on the second floor, this would create a blind assault.  Undeterred, the players again selected an assault squad, while everyone else would await the elevator below and send up a second wave.

The second floor was a gigantic operating theater, where one of the floating "winged terrors" hovered above a test subject on an illuminated platform, mid-surgery.  A handful of headless servitors shambled forward to attack, while the party streamed off the elevator - well, most of them.  Timur the Russian Elf elected to cast a Magic Missile, and because a caster can't move and throw a spell, he was still on the elevator when the guys on the first floor jammed on the down button.  That stranded the four melee attackers on the second floor without any magical backup.  The players didn't exactly think that one through.

The Magic Missile blew a hole in the unearthly material of the winged terror, and this was followed by a vicious spear thrust from the cleric Borghild, who charged it.  The other 3 fighter types (Agnar, Mustafa, and Brutok) were bogged down battling the Headless Servitors.  The terror floated toward the high ceiling, where the elevator shaft provided an escape route to level 3.  Along the way, the monster "droned"; it has the power to vibrate and create a wave of soporific sound that puts humans to sleep.  This could have been really bad for the players - 4 dead main characters, if the saves were missed - but everyone made their saving throw but the cleric, and the fight continued.

Meanwhile, the elevator was now making its way from the first floor with the next wave of characters - and one of them was the magic user, Tribunas, who was carrying a lighting guns scavenged off a winged terror from a previous dungeon encounter.  Seeing the injured monster high above in the elevator shaft, he fired on it up the shaft, scoring a direct hit and blowing it into pieces.  Slimy monster parts rained down on their heads.

Once the second floor was secure, they found the kidnapped captain in a holding tank - it was like a metal coffin, filled with a paralytic gas that kept the captain asleep and inert.  Reaching into the tank made your arms go numb.  The other tanks were filled with vivisection victims that were being harvested for servitor body parts - apes, morlocks, even a neanderthal, all missing things.  One of them was even missing their head.

A strike crew decided to head up to level 3 - at this point, the group surmises the tower has 4 levels.  Here they encountered the Decapitated Oracle - a choir of disembodied heads, resting in tiered troughs surrounding a small platform where a supplicant can place their hands (or clawed appendages, as the case may be) upon a pair of silver globes to activate the oracle.  The heads floated in some kind of nutrient bath that kept them somewhat alive, eyes rolling and mouths opening and closing aimlessly in perpetual horror.  Some were aging and in rough shape - perhaps "burning out" like overused light bulbs - thus creating the need for replacements.  The players now understood why the servitor golems had no heads!

The intrepid cleric stepped forward and touched the silver spheres - because that's what players do.  Immediately, all the brainpower (computing power) of those hundred heads flowed into the cleric, and her mind expanded  beyond the mortal realm.  In game terms, it was like reaching out to the higher planes via a Contact Other Plane spell.  What would she ask of the universe with her heightened, godlike awareness?

Alas, the experience of the other four characters present was not so uplifting.  From their perspective, a hundred alien voices started yelling, babbling, gibbering, and tumbling out of the mouths of the disembodied heads in an overwhelming cacaphony, and in game terms, it was like being assaulted by a Confusion spell.

Time was getting late and some guys had a hard stop, so we deferred the Saving Throw rolls until this week.  What fun awaits!

As usual, here is our Cast of Characters:

Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter (L4)
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior (L4)
Brutok the Strong, a dwarf (L4)
Borghild, a Norse cleric of Odin (L4)
Timur, Russian Elf (L3)
Vitaly, Russian Elf (L3)
Ben Underfoot, Halfling (L2)

Retainers traveling with the party:
Tribunas, Byzantine magic user (L2)
Bottvild (cleric L3)
Visin Thorsteinson (fighter 3)
Hunlaf the Saxon (specialist 3)
Ivar the Bow-bender (specialist 1)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Matters of Size

Many RPG rules sets have a recommended or implicit target number for party size, as well as practical limits on what the game system can handle and keep things moving.  When you read about the early days of D&D, it seems like those guys played with gigantic groups - 10 players or more!  Those halcyon days haven't exactly returned, but my home group these days tends to be larger than the game groups earlier in my career - it now includes dads and some of their older kids, so our regular attendance is usually 7 players and a DM.  It could easily be more if I had a bigger table and more chairs.

One wrinkle to consider as I compare Call of Cthulhu vs weird D&D horror is this party size factor.  I feel like the target number for Cthulhu gaming is probably 3-4 players, though we've frequently had to stretch to 5.  Whether the premise involves a pair of police detectives and consultants, a few Delta Green agents, or the traditional PI or jack-of-all-trades and friends taking on a job that leads to an occult investigation, the scenarios are intimate, and the nature of searching for lore and clues favors a small, focused group.  It's comical to picture a flock of 15+ investigators (players plus retainers) descending on a small cottage in search of leads.

This reinforces my decision to stick with a D&D style system for any future campaigns that develop horror themes - whatever loss accrues in atmosphere due to the number of players, is outweighed because the setting and rules admit a larger play group at the table.  We do have some explicit Call of Cthulhu plans brewing for in-between games, but we'll shave some group members for those scenarios to get to a smaller player set, keeping the kids out, for instance.  I can think of a few Cthulhu campaigns that can support a gigantic party, too - something like Beyond the Mountains of Madness could probably do it, if we ever want to try an extended campaign using Chaosium.

Scaling D&D material to work with a large group wasn't much fun during the 4E era.  I've got to remember to keep one eye on NEXT and see if WOTC is falling into the same trap of the "5-man party".  If I see any marketing blather about the "party-size sweet spot" coming from those guys, I'm out.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Your Own Private Mythos

There's much common ground between something like LOTFP (a weird horror interpretation of classic D&D) and Cthulhu Dark Ages, which takes that classic Mythos investigation experience and roots it in a similar world of swords and armor, castles and monasteries. For that matter, we could put Cthulhu Invictus in the same conversation, with it's foundation in Roman history.

I've discussed some of the differences before; D&D characters advance primarily through earning treasure; if D&D guys are encountering eldritch horrors, it's likely incidental to exploring some crumbling place seeking money.  Cthulhu investigations might kick off with a job offer, but the campaigns usually become "save the world" affairs once the characters learn what's going on.  There are some other differences too - ritual magic vs Vancian magic, sanity rules and the sanity death spiral.  Both styles feature frequent character death, and the setting transcends the characters.  It'd be interesting to take a look at how the differing mechanics inform the divergent play experiences.

Today though, how about just looking at the presence or absence of Chaosium's bestiary?  Lovecraft's work is in the public domain, but Chaosium has licensed the creations of many post-Lovecraft writers who have extended the Cthulhu Mythos, providing the Call of Cthulhu keeper a vast bestiary for scenario building.  (See Malleus Monstrorum for an excellent Cthulhu bestiary).

There's a saying writers frequently quote - something like "constraints breed creativity".  It's the idea that it's much easier to launch into a short story on a guided subject than starting with a blank paper.  In the gaming space, much of the reason folks love random tables so much is the inspiration a few cryptic results on a table provide as a departure point for creation.

So I wonder whether the more fruitful exercise is to create Lovecraftian monsters whole cloth, establishing your own Mythos along the way, or building on the preexisting forms and reinterpreting them?  Would it be more fun, say, to find a creative new use for the Deep Ones, or Fungi from Yuggoth, as antagonists in a campaign setting, or start from scratch with an entirely new Mythos race?  There's an inspirational book, Stealing Cthulhu, by Graham Walmsley, that's all about suggestions on shuffling the deck of Mythos threats while reusing the building blocks of Lovecraft's stories and his signature creations.

There's a dynamic in Cthulhu game writing of obfuscating or hiding the tracks of the monsters, since so many of them are known quantities, and the game-within-the-game becomes that moment when the savvy players go "Aha!  We've identified the bad guy!"; the base bestiary is well known after 30 years, and enough peels of the onion are eventually revealed for the players to name the threat.  Using the known bestiary provides that creative framework for the writer, but also leads to a sense of accomplishment for the players when they piece it all together.  But the use of that existent bestiary doesn't further the cause of unknowable horror. It’s perhaps the opposite.

What's the argument against new creations?  For starters, they don't have the gravitas of 80+ years of print history.  Lovecraft's creations have deep resonance.  I denigrated that "Aha moment" when the players realize what they're up against, but it can perhaps just as easily be an "Oh shit!" moment when the players realize what they're up against.  It's asking a lot for professional writers, whether it's fiction or gaming products, to measure up to The Man.  Why recreate the wheel when the building blocks are already there?

Let me see if I can reduce some of these thoughts to just a few bullet points, pro and con.  Please feel free to add more in the comments if there are important factors I missed:

Arguments for using Lovecraft's creations:
  • 80+ years of print lends gravitas and mystique
  • The Aha! moment when players ID the perp
  • The Oh shit! moment when players ID the perp and realize they're screwed
  • Lovecraft's creations already hold deep resonance
Arguments for your own private Mythos:
  • Horror should be unknowable
  • Only Chaosium licenses the whole thing
  • It might be fun to re-imagine it from scratch

I still don't know exactly what kind of custom campaign I'm doing after the Black City run; I mean, I promised the players we'd return to Gothic Greyhawk and pick up with one of the older campaigns for a bit, but beyond that, I'm obsessed with moving forward with a horror-themed campaign.  Otherwise, I'm a hot mess - switching gears between the Caribbean, gothic Yorkshire, colonial New England, and so forth - pages of campaign idea stubs littering my notebooks.  However, I've been catching up on so much Chaosium reading lately, it seems natural to ask - why not just use the Mythos, regardless of system?  On the other hand, I'm a huge fan of Mike Mignola and the Hellboy universe, and Mignola is an example of a creator that's used Lovecraft's themes to create a mythology and universe with wholly new creations to great success.  It can certainly be done.  I highly recommend BPRD and Hellboy if you like pulp horror comics.

What do you guys think?  Seems like a good time for a new poll - Lovecraft monsters are somewhat popular out here on the blogs, are you most interested in a creative use of an existing entity or creating something new?

*The image is Ogdru Jahad from the Hellboy comic, one of the great old one like monsters from the Hellboy universe.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Nyarlathotep Made Me Do It

All my recent business travel has given me a lot of time to get caught up on RPG reading, but not as much time for blogging.  I'll be able to put up more reviews coming in the next few weeks.  One thing that's been strikingly clear re-reading pieces from the Chaosium back-catalog is that many writers suffer from "too much Nyarlathotep" syndrome.

Lovecraft's Mythos is indifferent to humanity - or at least, his most powerful tales express cosmic indifference.  The frightening beings of the Mythos are either powerful aliens or totally monstrous gods that are oblivious to us.  Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, Nyarlathotep, the supposed Crawling Chaos and messenger and soul of the outer gods, morphed into the boogeyman.   Nyarlathotep is the one that left the toilet seat up, let the air out of the tire, or drank the last of the milk and put an empty back in the fridge.  Every oddball demon is an avatar of Nyarlathotep, and every cultist plot is being moved along by Nyarlathotep like a 4-color super villain.  Muhaha.

And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for those meddling investigators.

It's convenient to have a personal adversary for humanity, if you're writing a pulp action campaign and/or supernatural horror.  I happen to love Supernatural Horror; I've been digging the world of Innistrad, for instance, from the Magic the Gathering card game.  It would make a fine D&D setting.  The protector of the world, a powerful angel, was trapped in the selfsame prison she was using to exile demonkind.  Humanity has been left alone to fend for itself in a  nightmare world of vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and things that go bump in the night.  Everyone is a victim.  It's a great set up for all the gothic horror tropes, and the fall of the world's angelic guardian creates a sense of both loss and hope in the setting as humans cling to their lost faith.  No matter how dark the setting appears, players could always hold out hope of learning how to restore the lost guardian and return light to the world.  It would make a spectacular campaign arc for dark fantasy.

Yeah, but none of that belongs in a Lovecraft setting.

It's not particularly easy to run a bleak campaign built around themes of cosmic horror, I get it.  Much easier to write something with two-fisted action and guns blazing, and this is the form of many of the larger Call of Cthulhu campaigns, like The Masks of Nyarlathotep.  (Although I do think it would be super cool to convert Masks to a fantasy rules set and run it like a D&D game - brothers and sisters, can I get a "Huzzah" for a "Lamentations of Nyarlathotep" game?)

So yes, I blame Mythos adventure writers looking for a convenient way to string together their convoluted plots with a supernatural puppet-master pulling the strings and twirling his moustache.  But Nyarlathotep-made-me-do-it is also a problem with trying to be inclusive with all of Lovecraft's writing - does the high fantasy of the Dreamlands really have anything to do with the author's later works, which express a scientific world view and the passage of geologic time?  Nyarlathotep's speech at the end of "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" is the most exposure we get to the being, and he's downright chummy with Randolph Carter in a good-on-ya-chap-sort-of-way, in the final sequence.

Individual referees can apply their own interpretation to reconcile the Nyarlathotep-boogeyman with their perspective on cosmic horror in the campaign, so I realize there are apologists out there; in Trail of Cthulhu, Ken Hite offers a wide range of ideas to help sort the mess, from 'Nyarlathotep is human perception anthropomorphizing cosmic reality' to a telepathic construct of the Great Old Ones, the true form behind all the gods, or even just a powerful agent.  And yes, he can even be The Boogeyman.  If you must.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Game Report 23: To the Tower of Pain

After a few weeks hiatus, it's time to reconnect with my ongoing campaign, The Black City, in time for tonight's game session.  In the interim, I've been traveling for work; on another night, we couldn't get a quorum of gamers; on the next game night, we organized an at-home Magic the Gathering draft to teach all the kids how to draft a deck.  One of my side projects has become helping to get a Magic scene at the local comic store kick-started, as they hope to add more gaming and becoming more of a game club.

Here's a quick campaign primer on the Black City:  The Black City is a ruined alien city, on the frozen island of Thule far to the north of the Viking lands (I'm using real-world Spitsbergen for the island map, thus the players call themselves "the Spitsberg Pirates", tongue-in-cheek).  A seasonal trade town sits on the shore of a fjord near the alien ruins, supporting the numerous knarrs and longships that arrive each season to explore the ruins and dungeons.

At this point, the players are mostly 3rd and 4th level.  They've explored a few ruined structures on the surface, and most of the sprawling first dungeon level, the Transit Tunnels.  They're allied with an alien intelligence calling itself "Odin", and they've spent the last few game sessions exploiting resources discovered in the dungeons to gear themselves for deeper delving.  For instance, they used an alien plasma forge and a skilled craftsman from town to craft a few adamant blades for themselves.

The players had a logistical challenge to solve last game session; the captain who brought them to the island died in a tragic fire back at camp, their ship was damaged in the fire, and many of the crewmen abandoned them for other ships (along with about a quarter of the loot).  They returned to camp amidst the chaos.

Over the course of the campaign, the group has been building an impressive resume with the local jarl, performing progressively more dangerous services as opportunities arise; Agnar, the party leader, approached the jarl for help with their ship problem.  In return for an oath of loyalty, the party agreed to serve the jarl directly, and gain the protection of the jarl's hall (and a safe place to store treasure).  The jarl has an impressive fleet, and there's the chance to get a ship before the end of summer through salvage rights - it's not uncommon for entire crews to disappear in the misty ruined city, leaving behind an empty camp and vessel.

Dealing with all the roleplaying options and potential allies in camp, and finally settling on appealing to the jarl, took about half the game night; the second half began with the Mid-Summer Thing - a gathering of all the captains to hear disputes and grievances, vote on policy, and enjoy some of the jarl's hospitality.  The relevant bit that was revealed at the Thing was the abduction of a captain in the ruins by "winged terrors", and the helpless crew unable to get past the great glacier to the distant tower where he was taken.  The party plotted it out on the hex map, and saw that the location of the tower was above a dungeon tunnel that went beneath the glacier; they were calling the side tunnel that led to the place, "the winged terror lair".  The players had some previous success against winged terrors, and thought that this mission complimented their previous plan, which involved more scouting of the surface ruins.

It's a long journey across the ruins, to the "private" dungeon entrance the party uses to get underground, and then it's a few hours through the giant transit tunnels underground to the smooth-bored side tunnel that led to the winged terror lair.  Dank, hot, misty air wafts out of the smooth tunnel, pooling condensation and slime onto the floor and making the stone slick.  There's a sense the tunnel was cut through the rock wall through unnatural means.

The smooth tunnel leads about 30' into the rock wall before connecting to a large shaft vertical shaft.  The hot, dank, cavern air wafts up from below.  The party knows that a tropic, mushroom-filled cavern lies down in the darkness, but they haven't explored it yet.  Looking up, they saw a dim light about 20' up, just beyond the lip of the shaft - in other words, the shaft lead upwards into a structure on the surface, north of the glacier.  The Tower of Pain!

No one wanted to climb the slick walls of the shaft, so one of the characters hooked up a grappling hook and rope and tossed it up the shaft, trying a few times until the grappled grabbed onto the stone floor above.  The party also tied a safety rope around the character attempting the first climb, in case the grappled slipped.  The new halfling, Mr Ben Underfoot, made the climb.

The first floor of the tower was not vacant.

Sitting around the perimeter wall were a half dozen "things"… they looked like cobbled-together corpses, stitched and mismatched body parts of humans, apes, and other humanoids, without any heads.  An chitinous knob and a pair of antennae twitched in the place where a head should have sprouted.  Various metallic grafts were embedded into the flesh of the arms and shoulders as weaponry and armor.

Each body had a large, toothy mouth opening directly into the distended belly.  The things were lazily reaching to the side, to stacked piles of mushroom stems, and casually feeding mushroom bits into their own drooling belly-mouths.  They appeared oblivious to the grapple hook and the curious halfling peering over the lip of the shaft.  Nearby, cool air drafted into the room from a doorway leading outside of the tower, creating a bit of fog.

Mr Underfoot shimmied his way down the rope to the side tunnel, and conferred with the rest of the party.  Assaulting the shaft up a rope presented an unusual tactical challenge, so we ended the game session there so they could plan their assault with fresh minds.  Tonight.

BTW, would any aspiring artists out there care to take a stab at "headless servitors of the winged terrors"?  It's a strange enough monster to warrant a picture and could be fun to sketch - cobbled body parts, mutant grafts, and toothsome belly mouths.

Edit - here's an excellent sketch by Mr Nelson of the headless servitor, feeding mushrooms into the stomach belly.  Thanks!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Speaking About The Unspeakable Oath - Reviews of Issues 21 and 22

The Unspeakable Oath is a pdf magazine published by Arc Dream Publishing for Cthulhu gaming - it's tag line is "a digest of arcane lore for Cthulhu mythos roleplaying games".  It's released intermittently - it comes out maybe once, twice a year?  But Issue 22 came out recently and I figured I'd do a quick review of the past couple of issues to give readers the flavor.  If you like Cthulhu gaming, this magazine is for you; if you like the horror genre and want ideas for use in other games, you can't go wrong here either.  It's one I enjoy quite a bit.  (You can find it at the usual suspects:  The Unspeakable Oath).

The Oath is usually 60-80 pages with content spread across a number of recurring features.  There's usually an interesting editorial column, a series of reviews, and standard columns introducing new artifacts, tomes, and "tales of terror".  I particularly like the tales of terror; they're short plot hooks that set up an ominous or horrible situation, and then offer the referee a couple of options on what's really going behind the scenes; one or two of the options is innocuous or a red herring.  Every issue has a few ready-to-go scenarios, as well.

Issue 21
Highlights for me of this issue were the two scenarios:  "Sukapak", and "The Man With a Thousand Faces".  "Sukapak" is an atmospheric wilderness jaunt in a remote fastness; there's a lot of ambiguity around what's actually going on, but the scenario is menacing and disturbing (and could port well to other genres, too).  It reminded me closely of Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows", which I'm sure was an inspiration.

"The Man With a Thousand Faces" revolves around a haunted Hollywood star, his gift of impersonation fueled by a dark pact and a body curse.  The identities and physical transformations he's assumed through the years are growing out of his body like cancerous buds and speaking to him.  His mansion is littered with faces cut off his body, which continue to mumble their lines.  He's totally insane.  It's all fairly gruesome.

Issue 22
Issue 22 features a cool monster, the China Doll, a living doll-face that grafts itself to a victim, as tendrils from the mask burrow into the victim's brain and turn the victim into a puppet.  I'm stealing that one, for sure - disjointed, mask-wearing human puppets, ftw.  Issue 22 also had a lengthy article on kicking off a new Call of Cthulhu campaign and dealing with common genre problems.

The scenario, "Die High", features a high altitude monster killing people in skyscrapers and penthouses, and reminded me a lot of the "slake moths" from Perdido Street Station.  It's a neat modern scenario and would have to be run using Call of Cthulhu in the present day; it's probably a bit too hard to port to fantasy unless you’re running a setting like Eberron with tall urban towers and a bit of pseudo-tech.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Review: Realms of Crawling Chaos

Work continues to compel  a lot of travel; that's given me the chance to catch up on some reading, or in the case of Realms of Crawling Chaos, to read it again, in anticipation of a formal review.  Realms of Crawling Chaos is a sourcebook that contains ideas on incorporating elements of dark fantasy, inspired primarily by the writings of HP Lovecraft, into your Labyrinth Lord game.  It's written by Daniel Proctor and Michael Curtis and available at the usual suspects: Realms of Crawling Chaos.

The book is not a horror source book and doesn't contain techniques for incorporating horror into your campaign; it provides game statistics and ideas for using Lovecraft elements in your fantasy game.  That covers a distinctly different design space than an explicit horror game like Call of Cthulhu.  The fantasy world supported by Realms of Crawling Chaos discards the Tolkien-inspired races and monsters of traditional fantasy for a human-centric campaign where the ancient ruins and civilizations were built by monstrous antecedents like the Elder Things or the Great Race of Yith.  The rules are explicitly written for Labyrinth Lord (which just means you could borrow them for any of your favorite old school rules sets - or Labyrinth Lord).

There's an intriguing philosophy at work in the writing here; the authors expressly declare that they've returned to the source, Lovecraft's public domain writings (and a few of his peers), to take a fresh look at interpreting those creations for the game book.  This means ignoring versions that have appeared in the flagship Cthulhu game line, Call of Cthulhu, as well as ignoring the enhancements by post-Lovecraft authors that have been absorbed into Chaosium's presentation of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Here's an example:  the Hounds of Tyndalos were memorialized in a Frank Long story as time-traveling hunters that slide through the angles of time and space, ever-blocked by round-cornered rooms; did you know they're originally mentioned (in a throw-away line) during a conversation in "The Whisperer in Darkness"?  Ignoring the later, post-Lovecraft creations, the writers here are free to offer a new approach to the Hound using only the name.  (That doesn't mean the new interpretation is great; it's just different, and moreover, free of any licensing entanglements).  In other cases, effects hinted at in a Lovecraft story are given a full-blown treatment here as a new spell or formula; I was delighted to see Geas of the Descendant as an explanation for Charles Dexter Ward's obsession with revivifying his dead ancestor, Joseph Curwen - taken, naturally, from "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward".

So what does the book actually cover?  There are some new races (or race-classes, for Labyrinth Lord) that cover Sea Blooded, Subhumans, White Apes, or White Ape Hybrids.  Subhumans and White Apes are basically fighter variants with level caps, and small race bonuses to differentiate them from humans; White Ape Hybrids combine the abilities of a fighter-thief, and Sea Blooded are fighter-clerics.  Sea Blooded represents Deep One hybrids, and allows the player to take on a character that devolves completely into a monster over time; it's by far the most interesting and offers some interesting role playing opportunities.

There is a section on new formulae and spells, covering many of the signature incantations found in the literature, as well as providing some magic healing, if the referee removes the cleric from the game.  There's a complimentary chapter on ancient tomes that emphasizes study, scholarship, and the perils of forbidden knowledge, that we so often see in Lovecraft.

There is a large section on monsters, covering creations found in the works of Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and even Robert E Howard.  As I mentioned above, the authors of Realms of Crawling Chaos tried to take a fresh look at each creature, ignoring the works of later authors or other game designers.  The monster interpretations are a bit hit-and-miss for me, but I'm glad to adjust them to fit my own campaign and vision.  Lovecraft never defined a mythos or cosmology (that came from later authors) so it is interesting to see the "pantheon" of god-like beings all appear as 'Great Old Ones', ignoring the later classification into Outer Gods, Great Old Ones, and Elder Gods that defined later writing and has been institutionalized in Call of Cthulhu.

Two of the most interesting and useful chapters are Psionics and Eldritch Artifacts.  I don't recall any Psionics in Lovecraft (wink, wink), but the authors call it out as something that fits Lovecraft's scientific world view.  It provides a way of giving the various entities in the monster section unusual powers and abilities.  I found that psionics work well here.  There are no sanity and madness rules like in Call of Cthulhu, so psionics endows the alien Great Old Ones with overwhelming presence due to their freaky mind powers.

Various artifacts from the Lovecraft catalog are represented in game terms, and there's a lengthy section on creating new magic items and artifacts that defy conventional expectations - a trio of hundred-entry tables offer a bit of random generation.  If you're playing a game like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which eschews traditional magic items as represented in D&D type games, this section alone is worth the purchase of the book.

I should mention - the book is about 60 pages of material (66 pages in the pdf, including covers and OGL statements), in black and white with a similar art style to Labyrinth Lord.  I'm not a huge fan of the art, but it fits the idiosyncratic fantasy vibe over horror.  It's available in a stapled soft cover, which is what I usually use at the table.

Realms of Crawling Chaos is a regular reference book in my campaigns; I've drawn inspiration from the monsters, used elements of the psionics directly, and played around with the tables to create unusual artifacts and magic items.  There's no higher praise or recommendation than pointing out that material from this book appears every time we sit down to play.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Towards More Interesting Random Encounters

Encounter tables are a fantastic way to define an RPG setting; they're experiential instead of narrative, and serve useful campaign defining purposes both in their creation and use.  They're extremely economical in terms of presenting useful setting information in a compact space.  But they're not without problems.  The traditional wandering monster table requires the DM to improvise an entire encounter right on the spot and there's not much with which to work.  As Brendan pointed out in a previous comment, a result of 8 orcs, range 70', reaction roll: 9, is fairly bland as a starting point.

What can we do to make those encounters more interesting?

My first thought was to have a simple "monster motivational chart".  Imagine you're a simple Ogre named Pigswallow, just trying to make your way in the world.  What motivates Pigswallow to abandon the comforts of lair and den, joining the ranks of wandering monsters everywhere in search of better things, and risking a dangerous encounter with adventurers?

Monster Motivations (roll 2d6)
2 Seeking spiritual or intellectual fulfillment
3 Searching for mates
4 On guard patrol
5 Seeking a shelter
6 Looking for water
7 Looking for food
8 Looking for warmth, comfort
9 Looking for treasure
10 Looking for lost companions
11 Out to prove their worth
12 On a quest for knowledge

It's pretty basic, but you can see that rolling a motivation for Pigswallow (and interpreting through monster psychology) could help with the encounter embellishment.  I rolled a friendly reaction (12) and motivation food (7), and suddenly Pigswallow is magnanimous, since clearly the player characters have brought their rations as offerings to avoid his lordly wrath; a similar roll of 9,9 leads to a somewhat friendly Pigswallow, as long as the characters are willing to pay him to go away, and so forth.  I'm not sure what "spiritual fulfillment" looks like for an Ogre, but it would be fun to improvise.  The table is only there to help with intelligent encounters, although maybe something similar could be built for animal behaviors.

The second problem involves what is the party doing.  There's this false assumption that just because the player's announced a marching order, they spend their entire time in the dungeon in perfect formation, with perfect spacing, never deviating from rank and file, ever ready for anything.  No one ever relieves him or herself, there's no breaks for water, no one drops a piece of equipment, and the lights never go out.  You have carte blanche to roll on a table like the one below any time there's an encounter to see what's really going on with the party at the moment the encounter is detected.  (I posted  a larger version of this table, for wilderness encounters, here:  Too Busy Looking at the Map to Notice the Monster).

What is the Party Doing? (roll 2d6)
2 Changing over a light source
3 Drinking water
4 Mapping
5 Listening
6 Scouting ahead
7 Exploring and alert
8 Talking and walking
9 Walking too close together
10 Someone just tripped and made a loud noise
11 Equipment problem
12 Taking a break

Of course, I think the ideal situation to the wandering monsters is to come up with a few pre-planned encounters for each entry, in advance.  For the Black City, where many of the encounters in the early game were competing explorers, I have 10-12 encounters pre-made to cover bandits, veterans, traders, NPC parties, etc.  It was a fair amount of time invested, but really paid off in play.  Another approach for monsters, particularly ones that wouldn't have motivations represented by the monster table above, would be to come up with a few specific dispositions so each encounter is a little different.

For instance, gjengangers (Norse zombies) are pretty common in the Black City; here's a sample table I could see myself using to determine what the gjengangers are doing whenever their number comes up on the wandering monster table:

Gjenganger activity (roll d6)
1  Shambling toward the player characters. Brains!
2  Lying still like dead bodies on the floor
3  Crawlers, pulling themselves forward by their arms
4  Milling around senselessly until aroused
5  Busy messily eating something else
6  Lurking in a niche or around the nearest corner to lunge out

I'm sure someone out there has done a bang-up job of creating ultimate wandering monster encounter tables, but it's so easy to lose track of the tribal knowledge out there in the wilds - between the blogs, message boards, zines, and other publications.  I'd love to hear about some of your favorite expressions of good encounter tables that you've seen in use.  I'll think about it as well and reply in the comments.