Monday, July 29, 2013

More Thoughts on the Adventurers

The other day, I pointed out different historical examples of adventurers, based on the kinds of things adventurers typically do in a D&D game - explore old ruins for lost treasures, conquer territory, and pillage other people's stuff.  The usual.

I tend to think the most about settings that are alternate earths, low magic, a little more grim and gritty.  Monsters are on the rare side, at least in the civilized lands.  I get the sense most folks play a much higher fantasy game, wild west style, where it's totally appropriate for dangerous and heavily armed adventurers to wander the country side and do whatever they want with minimal interference.

It's not my first choice to do "the wild west with orcs and knights" thing, but it's certainly the easiest.  Other approaches force you to think a little longer and harder about the role of adventurers in the game and how they fit into the social structure.  The wild west solves a lot of problems.  (My family just got me to start playing Skyrim, and it's totally like wandering the wild west, with battle axes and dragons).

Here are some of the campaigns I've run in recent memory, or are currently thinking about, and how adventurers operate in the setting.

The Black City
I ran the Black City much of last year.  It involved a desolate island in the frozen north, home to a crumbling alien city.  Viking explorers have created a trading camp on the shores of the island each summer, to launch expeditions into the ruins.

This one is totally the wild west with battle axes; there is a veneer of civilization and law and order while back in Trade Town, but once a party enters the ruins, it's the law of the jungle.  It's worked pretty well for an archetypal D&D game without having to think to hard about the role of adventurers.

Gothic Greyhawk
Greyhawk is a high fantasy setting, and the players started out on a frontier where humans were rebuilding after wars with monsters a generation ago.  Settlements further up the Sterich Valley were still ruined and uninhabited.  Shortly after the campaign started, a zombie apocalypse swept over the region, depopulating the valley and the home town completely.  There were no institutional impediments to the characters forming their own mercenary company out in the dead zone, and they even started the process of domain building when the wave of zombies moved onward.

Harrow Home Manor
This one's just an idea - it involves a ruined manse on the Yorkshire moors in the 1600's (I talk about it a bit here in this post: Area map for Harrow Home Manor).  Adventurers would need to keep a low profile in towns and villages.  Carrying heavy weapons in town is sure to gain the attention of the constabulary, and returning to town laden with treasure is going to garner even more unwanted attention.  For that matter, the ruins themselves are the abandoned, ancestral ruins of some noble, somewhere.  An early modern game begins to put some pressure on the role of dangerous adventurers vis a vis the rest of society.

The Antediluvian Prison
Last week I discussed the idea of using Biblical folklore as the back drop for a megadungeon somewhere in the Near East - it'd involve themes of a war in heaven in the distant past, imprisonment of the losers beneath the ground, and a great flood wiping out the corrupt civilizations of a past age.

The great powers of the time, like the Romans, are pragmatic and focused on their military.  Resources are bent towards military use.  Expeditions would be sponsored to plumb any ancient ruins in search of lore and knowledge if there was any thought that artifacts or knowledge could be retrieved and used against enemies of the Republic.

Adventurers are probably mercenaries hired by the local governor to exploit the ruins, creating a natural tension between keeping their finds for themselves versus turning over their findings as per the contract.

- - - -

It's easiest to establish D&D style adventurers out on a frontier, making that clear distinction between the civilized lands behind you and the dangerous wilds ahead.  The point isn't lost on me that the campaigns we've played the longest had the fewest impediments on player action, and gave them full license to wander free, fully armed (despite any protestations that it's not my favorite approach).  Hmmm.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Wanted: Professional Adventurers

The typical mode for Dungeons & Dragons resembles the American wild west more than any caste-bound feudal society. Powerful bands of armed adventurers, answering only to themselves, wander the countryside, looking for trouble.  What law-abiding society wants a bunch of outlaw bikers, armed to the teeth like pisteleros and knife fighters, rumbling into town and representing imminent violence?  Governments make laws against such behavior.

I know, I know - don't over-think your "fantasy" world.  Verisimilitude is overrated.  Call it a personal failing, but having a social framework that reasonably allows for armed adventurers is important to me during setting design.  More so because I trend towards settings that are alternate history or strongly inspired by real world history.

Luckily, there are lots of real world examples of armed adventurers we can look towards for understanding how and where such groups might operate.  I'm just a fan of history, so it's quite possible the readers will have other examples to suggest in the comments.  As a side note, this post is a bit of an add-on to something I saw over at Greyhawk Grognard the other day (Professional Adventurers), pointing out a dislike of professional adventuring guilds.  I agree that I'm not a fan of the approach to adventuring guilds in fantasy games. But there are some real world precedents for "professional adventurers", just not in the way they show up in, say, The Forgotten Realms.

Soldiers of Fortune
Leaving home, joining the army, and going off to loot distant places has a long history for real world adventurers.  I'm using the term "join the army" loosely, it covers a wide range of armed bands.  Historical examples include numerous Roman generals (and other ancient world conquerors) who raised an army primarily on promises of loot and lands, and went off to conquer distant places for personal glory (use Caesar's campaigns in Gaul as the model).  Medieval knightly orders like the Templars or Teutonic Knights (crusaders in general), Spanish Conquistadors, Vikings, and Germanic barbarians (V√∂lkerwanderung) all come to mind, too.  Smaller bands, existing on the frontiers during lawless periods, include examples like pirates, wild west outlaws, or mercenary companies during the 30 years war.

In the D&D campaign, your first level characters aren't likely to be this style of adventurer, and it won't have the necessary degree of player agency for a good game early on - this is a mode of play for the mid to high levels.

Shackleton, Lewis and Clark, Magellan and the famous figures of the Age of Exploration; if the world has large swaths of "terra incognito", another mode for legalized adventuring is the state-sponsored voyages of exploration.

That's a key point - for the most part, both the Soldiers of Fortune and Explorers mode of play assume institutional support - the ruling body or church back home is explicitly sponsoring campaigns of conquest or exploration for glory, god, or territory.  So maybe the out-and-out banditry (pirates or outlaws) needs to be carved out into it's own category of "illegal adventuring"?

Grave Robbers and Salvage Experts
I can't think of any famous grave robbers.  If the adventurers in question are looting the tombs of someone else's culture, they're engaging in salvage; if it's their own culture, they're probably going to be branded grave robbers.  People are funny that way.  So maybe you could call some of the explorers that 'discovered' various Egyptian treasures, like Howard Carter, founder of Tutankhaman's tomb, famous salvagers.  Tomb raiders.  There certainly are other types of salvages - the recovery of some of the Spanish treasure fleets, shipwrecked by hurricanes, and recovered by pirates in the Caribbean, comes to mind.

This type of exploration could easily translate into dungeoneering for lower level adventurers in a game.  I'm just conjecturing here, but perhaps the key difference between real world salvage and the types of activities in the fantasy game is the presence of institutional acknowledgement or patronage.

You could envision a D&D campaign striving for more "realism" would involve sponsorship of delves into distant ruins as the mode of play for lower levels.  Then, when the characters move into the mid to high levels of play, they could launch more grandiose expeditions, now involving armed conquests as they take the lead roles over large groups of men in that "soldier of fortune" style of play.

You have to ask yourself:  if the local rulers or similar institutions know that large treasures, lost secrets, and buried magic are just sitting out there, waiting in the ground for recovery, wouldn't they be the ones to sponsor operations to go and recover them?

Only in "fantasy land" would a king or ruler allow a bunch of no names to recover enough wealth and power to threaten the throne...

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Age of Monsters

There were Giants in the earth in those days.
Genesis 6:4

We frequently point out that Dungeons & Dragons and OSR games are essentially post-apocalyptic.  The assumed setting postulates a world where ruins point to a glorious past, and those crumbling places are littered with magic and treasures created in the bygone age.  The default approach seems to be Western European, suggesting the fallen empire is an analog to Rome and the current benighted state of man is something akin to the Dark Ages...err, Late Antiquity or the Early Middle Ages.  ("Dark Ages" is how I learned it back in the day.)

I love antiquity and the Roman period, so how would you create a post-apocalyptic predecessor to the ancient world?

Luckily for us, the ancient world comes gift-wrapped with its own apocalypse, called "the Biblical Flood".  *That flood*, the one with Noah, Mount Ararat, the Ark, and the Judeo-Christian deity sweeping away a corrupt age.  There are permutations of the flood myth throughout near-Eastern mythology such as the stories of Deucalion or Utnapishtim.  When you look at it closely, that pre-flood world could easily be turned into a typical Swords & Sorcery setting with corrupt city states and decadent sorcerers, replete with some awesome megadungeon ideas already built in, too.

And Azazel taught men to make swords and knives and shields and breastplates; and made known to them the metals [of the earth] and the art of working them; and bracelets and ornaments; and the use of antimony and the beautifying of the eyelids; and all kinds of costly stones and all colouring tinctures. And there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they were led astray and became corrupt in all their ways.
1 Enoch 8:1–3

The Biblical flood is preceded by this period where a number of celestial beings - in the story, they're angels called 'The Watchers' - abandon their role as observers and start showing people all sorts of things - how to make weapons, how to use magic, how to read the stars and skies, and since they father a race of supernatural beings (the Nephilim) there is definitely some hanky panky involved, too.  What the ancient writers called "angels" could just as easily be extra-dimensional beings or aliens for our purposes.  (I hear Babylonian art is full of ancient astronaut symbology).  These accounts are folklore stories that provide total license to place demi-godlike super men, or the hideous offspring of pan-dimensional ultraterrestrials, ruling over corrupt city states and wielding forbidden magics and waging war on each other like ravenous beasts.

The apocryphal stories have a bunch of good angels, led by Raphael, come down and smack around the fallen, chaining them deep underground until Judgment day in Tartarus:

And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling--these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great day.
Jude 1:6

Finally, there's a real-world geographic location where all this excitement takes place, which is traditionally identified as Mount Hermon, the mountain of the oath, a series of peaks in Syria.  Mount Hermon also figures into the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Mount Hermon is a rich archaeological site, with numerous ruined temples and holy sites littering the slopes, including a reputed Palace of Baal.

I'm sold.

So here's the elevator pitch:  In  the ancient, pre-Roman world, powerful beings from beyond teach early humans all sorts of forbidden arts like metallurgy and magic, they establish palaces and dungeons within Mount Hermon, they set themselves up to be worshiped, and they father a race of monstrous tyrant overlords that dominate the region. Its was an age undreamed of.  Other beings from beyond eventually come along, imprison the transgressors deep beneath the ground, and instigate a massive flood that wipes out the ancient near-Eastern civilizations, 'cleansing the world' of the previous ills.  Humanity civilization rises from the ruins, but the lost hollows and hidden ways beneath Mount Hermon still contain the artifacts and monsters dating back to the antediluvian world.

I already mentioned that the otherworldly beings don't need to be divine angels in the Judeo-Christian sense; they could be dimensional travelers or aliens from a distant galaxy.  Their offspring could be supermen or horrible monsters.  For instance, lurking behind the Hellboy universe are the Ogdru Jahad and Ogdru Hem, Lovecraftian Great Old Ones and sleeping terrors, that trace their origins back to the fallen watchers similar to the Book of Enoch.  So you can get your whole tentacled-aberration-great-old-one thing going as well.  What matters is you've got a story involving forbidden sorceries and eldritch arts dating back to a sophisticated, fallen world, predating antiquity, complete with its own built-in apocalypse (the Flood) and imprisonment of the great evils beneath the earth, where surely they'll be chained on the lowest level of the dungeon until adventurers stumble along.  The dungeons and ruins would also contain remnants of the ancient religions, forbidden tomes, and the arcane wonders of the bygone age.

I'd want to investigate Roman history and find a time when Syria was a Roman frontier or home to some Roman outposts, so you could have frontier trading posts and towns to act as a home base for explorers sojourning beneath the mountain.  Alternatively, you could build a home-brew modeled on antiquity or borrow something like the Hollow World (an old Swords & Sorcery styled setting for Mystara).  But the strength of the campaign idea is basing it on real-world folklore and borrowing from other near-Eastern myth cycles like the Epic of Gilgamesh.  I'd be loath to start from scratch.

Most of the time I'm brainstorming how to do horror-themed dungeons in a low-magic real world setting in the early modern; by placing the adventures in a much earlier time, it feels less constrained introducing a higher degree of fantasy and magic so it looks more in-line with baseline D&D without restrictions.  There's another source of inspiration as well:  I'm still working my way through The Black Company series by Glen Cook, and I love how the books feature ancient horrors and old religions (many times not fully understood by the modern practitioners) resurfacing in the current age.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review: Eternal Lies from Pelgrane Press

I love campaigns for Call of Cthulhu.  Since the early 1980's, one of Chaosium's advantages was putting together those campaign-length, multi-stage horror investigations like Shadows of Yog Sothoth, Masks of Nyarlathotep, Brotherhood of the Beast, and many more.  The upcoming publication of Eternal Lies, from Pelgrane Press, is a clear statement that Trail of Cthulhu is not only going to deliver the same kind of epic experiences, but they're going to continue to refine the form and push adventure writing into new places.

After spending the past few weeks reading this 400 page monster, Pelgrane has far exceeded my expectations.

Let me start by saying that Eternal Lies is the latest work I've seen that takes a self-referential approach to the "Cthulhu investigation genre".  A group of investigators, much like your typical 1920's Call of Cthulhu characters, failed spectacularly at disrupting a cult summoning in the year 1924.  (I believe the cover image up there shows the 1920's guys about to get handed their rear-ends).  Shattered and disbanded, the few survivors have malingered in the asylum or home care, unable to come to terms with the horrors they experienced all those years ago.  (I've known some PC's that ended up like that, too).

Now it's more than 10 years later.  A wealthy patron hires a diverse set of characters to investigate the affairs of her late-father, who was never the same man after a mysterious event in 1924 (the botched Cthulhu investigation referenced above).  Starting with a pair of simple interviews at an asylum in the deep South, the campaign quickly thrusts the player characters into planning a series of world-spanning explorations that take them from a South East Asian pit fighting arena (ala Blood Sport), to the deserts of the Great Rift Valley, the jungles of the Yucatan, even to the peaks of Tibet.

Masks of Nyarlathotep is arguably the greatest Cthulhu campaign (it certainly headlines most of the discussions), and this campaign is a descendant and successor in a few of key ways.  It involves a world-spanning cult with unique, local iterations and challenges, much the way the cults in Masks are facets of a whole.  More importantly, the early locales give the players enough pointers to the global destinations that the players can prosecute their investigation of the cult in any order.  That right there is the classic Masks structure.

The overarching theme of Eternal Lies is corruption, and the adventure does a fantastic job of grinding stability and sanity from the investigators and threatening them with effects that corrupt their character's thoughts, souls, and ultimately, their physical bodies.  It wouldn't be surprising if one investigator ended up in the asylum, only capable of babbling incoherently in "the Tongue of Lies"; a second is forced to assume the ascetic life of a monk; while the third spends their remaining days covered up in heavy clothing, unwilling to show the mouth-like growths that grew on their forearms and must remain forever gagged lest they spout gibberish from beneath the sleeves.  Of course, that character could choose... amputation.  Gruesome stuff.  I'd anticipate a high body count and a fair amount of investigator "turnover" over the course of this particular campaign.

I'm not going to spoil the identity of the godlike horror behind the cult, nor discuss much about the end of Eternal Lies.  The identity of "the Liar from Beyond", the object of the cult's veneration, is one of the central mysteries of the campaign.  The ending holds plenty of surprises and twists that should be saved for play.  I'm satisfied with how it concludes.  Longtime fans of the genre will guess the identity of the "the Liar" long before the ending.  They'll still be unsettled by the twists before the final credits roll.

The rules set is Trail of Cthulhu.  Trail uses a resource management approach such that players are constantly making choices to deplete their resources (and have an easier time in the early going) but risk needing those resources later and having a tougher time.  Depending on your point of view, the resource system is either designed to give players equal spotlight time, or challenge group planning and strategy with resource management - game-style.  The authors do a good job of addressing both philosophies, with frequent "antagonist reactions" that maintain pressure on resources.  As the first Trail of Cthulhu published setting, the campaign includes advice on managing character Drives, Pillars of Sanity, resource pool refreshes, pacing, along with the aforementioned antagonist reactions.  The presence of Drives and Pillars of Sanity are important factors that tether the characters to their regular, day-to-day lives back home.  They're one of the important differentiators in Trail of Cthulhu, so it's nice to see them featured prominently in the campaign.

Eternal Lies is 400 pages, divided into 9 separate adventures.  Playing once a week, I'm thinking it'd be a 6-8 month endeavor to run this end-to-end.  Or longer.  Since I preordered, I've been reading the black & white PDF, with layout and art; the hardcover should be available later this summer.  You may still be able to preorder here:  Eternal Lies.

I'm on my second read-through.  This is an excellent campaign, highly recommended, which confronts the players with a diverse series of locales and investigation types, while showing off the strengths of the Trail of Cthulhu rules set (ie, Gumshoe).  I imagine a fan-conversion to Call of Cthulhu will be along shortly after publication.  Eternal Lies is right at the top of my queue for next games to run, and I plan to kick it off as a regular game as soon as we wrap up our current thing (probably early August).  Unfortunately, this one is on the mature side; the cults the players investigate involve plenty of drugs, sex, violence, drugs, violence, sex, and more drugs.  And big freaky mouths that try to eat you.  We won't be letting our younger players in on this particular campaign.

I may not be able to hold out for the hardcover edition, and could need to start running it off the pre-order PDF.  Now, if I were really lucky, some kind-hearted Pelgrane chap would pop in over here and let us know it would be ready for Gencon and that I can pick up a copy right there at the Pelgrane Booth, like Night's Black Agents last year.  Sometimes the stars are right.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Orcs, Goblins, and Gnolls, Oh My

I've mostly been running some Call of Cthulhu games lately, so the itch to get back to running fantasy is growing.  Plus, it's summer, and the kiddos are out of school - it's high time for another family game!  The two littles are old enough to follow along with a game, and my daughter can read a character sheet now, so they'll be off to THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS* shortly - mom and the three kids.

Here's the thing - kids and Gygaxian Naturalism don't mix.  There will be no orc babies or crying goblin moms in the game, mewling that the adventurers just killed their husbands.  I could have the whole table reduced to tears in short order.  (In fact, there is no crying in Dungeons & Dragons).  Ergo, it's time to whip up some alternate origins for the humanoid races, ones that put them firmly in the realm of monsters, and not as misunderstood, hairy pseudo-people.

The jealous Lord of the Underworld (Hades, Nix, or a similar character) works hard to keep the ways and passages to his gloomy realm hidden from mortals, and the kobolds were created to lure and confuse miners (ie, tommyknockers).  They delight in creating devious traps and laying ambushes, watching from the shadows with their ghostly, dead eyes.  As a Lord of the Dead, Hades is unable to create natural life, and thus the kobolds aren't truly alive - they're golem-like constructs made from children's bones,  rat's blood, and other scavenged materials, stewed in Hade's giant cauldrons.

The souls of wicked humans become wriggling larva, squirming in the pit of Hell, but powerful witches (Satanic witches) are able to call them back to the mortal world through their dark pacts.  They grow them in breeding pits into disciplined servants, the orcs.  There is no hope for redemption for any orc; there's only the belief that if they serve well and inflict sufficient pain and suffering on their maker's victims, they'll climb a rung on the ladder when they're cast back down to the pit.

Beneath the moldering eaves of the Goblin King's vast forest, putrid gardens spew forth the goblins and their larger cousins, the hobgoblins.  The goblins claw their way up out of the ground, chalk-colored and earthy, with a tuft of leaves on top of their heads to attest to their gestation as a root vegetable.  They're drawn to the woods and forests near human settlements to carry out their favorite diversion, kidnapping human children and carrying them off to wander the Goblin King's gigantic labyrinth beyond the mortal world.

Hobgoblins are grown from massive gourds, like pumpkins, and frequently use serrated shields and edged weapons that allude to sharpened leaves, or bulbous armor that calls to mind the contours of a large gourd.  Unlike their smaller brethren, the hobgoblins delight in robbery and banditry, frequently forming armed bands that terrorize lonely sections of roads and trails.  They eventually carry their loot to the Goblin King's vast treasuries, making the crossing each Halloween and vying to be crowned the new hobgoblin king for the next year.

Bugbears are the boogeymen of faerie lore, gangly fairy creepers covered in short, bristlelike fur, peering out of the shadows with their multifaceted eyes and clacking mandibles.  They can climb walls like a spider and contort to fit into near impossible spaces, such as the nook beneath the stairs, the hall closet, or perhaps squeeze down a narrow chimney.  Their insides are filled with bugs and worms and all manner of crawling things that spill out if they're killed.  Their mistress is a cruel and mad faerie lady, covered in spider webs that suggest a veiled wedding dress; she's known to sages only as "the Bride".

When the demonic witch Baba Yaga needed footsoldiers capable of running tirelessly across the steppes, she transformed a mongrel pack of wild dogs into the first gnolls, and taught the first gnoll shamans the dark rituals necessary to consecrate future mongrel litters to Yeenoghu and warp more canines into two-legged gnolls.  Roaming bands of these marauders leave behind death, destruction, and a noticeable lack of dogs.

The oldest crime, the oldest prohibition, is against cannibalism, and there is a spirit that sometimes takes root when a man eats the flesh of another man, transforming the forbidden diet into an addiction while changing the transgressor - body, mind, and soul - into a hulking man-eater that lumbers off into the wilderness to indulge its dark passions far from torches, pitchforks, and angry villagers.  Possession by the ogre spirit leads to an immortality, of sorts.

There we have it - my quick set of alternate humanoid descriptions.  I suppose if I'm doing THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS, I should tackle Lizard Men, too.  Hmm, upon rereading, I notice they're not quite as "kid friendly" or whimsical as I would have hoped.  Perhaps I watch too many horror movies to run a kid's D&D game.  But kids are tough, and real fairy tales are pretty scary, right?  They'll be fine, right?

*Gygaxian syntax requires all of his published works to be capitalized.